Heading a soccer ball may lead to traumatic brain injury and cogitive impairments, according to preliminary research released Tuesday by the Radiological Society of North America.
The good news is that the less you do it, the less damage you suffer.
• A new study shows that heading a soccer ball may cause brain damage when it is done too often, but may not be a problem in limited doses.
• More research is needed to determine a safe range for how often heading can be practiced.
• Children under age 10 should never head a soccer ball, a pediatric sports specialist says.
Heading the ball is an integral part of the game, so players, fans, and soccer moms need to know the risks involved.
In a previous study, researchers found that 32 amateur soccer players who “headed” the ball several times a day — 1,000 to 1,500 times a year — developed abnormalities in areas of the brain responsible for memory, attention, planning, organizing, and vision, according to a WebMD report.
But the new study — following the same 32 players — indicates that those who headed the ball less frequently did not suffer th0se abnormalities.
“The new study shows that there may be a safe range where you can head the ball without adverse consequences to the brain,” researcher Michael Lipton told WebMD. But until more players are followed for a longer period of time, there’s no way to set an exact limit.
“We don’t have enough evidence to say X amount of heading is absolutely bad for you,” Lipton said. “So my advice is to try to minimize heading, especially during practice drills.”
Players often head the ball back and forth to each other over and over again during practice. People who spend at least three days a week in intense play and practice can reach an excess of 5000 heads a year, Lipton told Medscape.
Lipton is associate director of the Gruss Magnetic Resonance Research Center at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.
University of Virginia neurology chief Max Wintermark said it was not surprising that repeatedly butting a soccer ball with your head would lead to brain damage. But researchers need to determine if taking a break can allow the brain to repair itself, thus lessening the overall damage, he said.
“Perhaps the effect of heading is not cumulative because of some repair occurring between headings, and lessening or preventing injury might be a matter of not doing too much heading repeatedly in a certain period of time,” Wintermark said. “All of this needs to be studied further before recommendations can be made.”
How does this affect children?
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that heading be kept to a minimum among young players, but the guidelines say there is not enough evidence to completely refrain from heading the ball.
Dr. Chris Koutures, a pediatrician and sports medicine specialist in Anaheim Hills, told USA TODAY that more data is needed in order to set limits for young players.
“We need an approach where we follow players down the road and count the headers in respect to age, head injuries, alcohol use and other factors,” Koutures said. “This would be valuable information to share with players and their families.”
Koutures also said it would be difficult for most parents and coaches to notice neurological damage because cognitive problems tend to develop graudually.
In any case, practicing safe technique is extremely important, Koutures said. Striking the ball with the forehead as the head, neck and torso are set in a solid line without any twisting can reduce force on the head.
Children should not practice heading the ball until they are developmentally ready to learn this skill, around age 10, Koutures said.
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