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Is repetitive heading in soccer a health hazard?

Is repetitive heading in soccer a health hazard?

soccer_headerIn the 20 years that I played soccer as a child and young adult, I used my head countless times to challenge and control the ball as it sailed through the air. During practices, coaches gave instructions on which part of the head to use in making contact and redirecting the ball so that the impact was less painful. They also trained me and my teammates on the body mechanics of receiving the ball to maintain possession. But there was never a discussion on the potential health affects of repetitively heading the ball.

So I was interested to read about a paper (subscription required) recently published in Brain Injury wherein researchers raise concerns about long-term consequences of repetitive heading. In the study, Canadian researchers analyzed nearly 50 papers that examining the incidence of concussion in soccer. Among their findings:

  • Overall, concussions accounted for 5.8 per cent to 8.6 per cent of total injuries sustained during games.
  • In particular, girls’ soccer accounted for 8.2 per cent of sports-related concussions, the second highest sport after football.
  • Research papers that looked at the mechanism of injury found 41.1 per cent of concussions resulted from contact by an elbow, arm or hand to the head.
  • Another study showed 62.7 per cent of varsity soccer players had suffered symptoms of a concussion during their playing careers, yet only 19.2 per cent realized it.
  • Studies on the long-term effects of heading found greater memory, planning and perceptual deficits in forwards and defenders, players who execute more headers.
  • One study found professional players reporting the highest prevalence of heading during their careers did poorest in tests of verbal and visual memory as well as attention.

Considering that an estimated 265 million(.pdf) people worldwide play soccer, researchers say these findings show more research on the long-term consequences of repetitive heading is greatly needed.

Previously: Kids and concussions: What to keep in mind, Measuring vs. reporting concussions in cheerleading, Can a single concussion cause lasting brain damage? and A conversation with Daniel Garza about football and concussions
Photo by Gordon Marino

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