If you’re a soccer fan, nothing can compare with the sight of a player “heading” the ball into the goal. Being able to do that takes years of practice—practice that aside from improving skills, may be causing brain damage–even if it doesn’t cause a concussion.
Worries about concussions in sports have been getting a lot of attention, but researchers have recently started looking at “preconcussive” or “subconsussive” impacts—the kind of thing that happens when heading a ball. In one study of female high school soccer players, researchers did a series of iPad experiments to assess players reaction times. In some of the tests, soccer players were significantly slower than non-soccer players. In others, there wasn’t much differences. However, overall, the results indicated that even minor hits “can result in cognitive function changes that are consistent with mild traumatic brain injury of the frontal lobes.” The results were cumulative, meaning that the more years a girl had played soccer, and/or the more hours she played each week, the worse the results.
Overall, young players are especially susceptible to brain injury because their brains aren’t fully developed. There’s also some recent research that indicates that girls may be even more susceptible than boys and that they show more symptoms and take longer to recover than boys. However, some of the difference between boys and girls could be the result of boys simply playing through their injuries and not ever reporting them. If they never show up in a doctor’s office, their concussions and symptoms won’t be included in the stats.
Soccer-related brain injury isn’t just a worry for kids. A study done in 2011 looked at adult soccer players and found that those who had headed the ball 1,100 times or more in the previous year showed “significant loss” of matter in the parts of their brain associated with attention and memory. Those who’d used their head less, had less damage.
“Based on these results, it does look like there is a potential for significant effects on the brain from frequent heading,” said Dr. Michael L. Lipton, associate director of the Gruss Magnetic Resonance Research Center at Einstein and senior author of the study.
If you’re interested in reading more about this issue, here are some excellent articles.