Repetitive Heading May Injure Soccer Players’ Brains

Here’s a news report. Here’s a much more detailed report.

This study was on 38 “amateur” soccer players who had played since childhood, average age of 31. I fall into this category myself, age 39, played since childhood, played through college and law school on my college/university traveling teams, still play in a competitive men’s league. I coach my young daughters now, and have been waiting for this shoe to drop since all the bad business came out on the football concussion problems.

To begin, the force applied to your noggin when heading a soccer ball varies through a whole spectrum of angles of impact and velocity of the ball. It isn’t like taking (or delivering) a direct helmet-to-helmet hit and getting KO’d and concussed. The worst you could possibly take from a soccer ball would be having it kicked hard directly at your head and lunging into it to head it right back where it came from. That would represent the hardest blow you could take, but happens very rarely – I’m thinking of players forming a wall and the opponent’s free kick shot directly at the wall. That, with a ball hitting someone in the head, will happen only once in a blue moon.

Let me summarize the study and explain my problems with it. I’ll be really interested to see what the soccer blogs’ reactions to this will be, and will try to write more here.

The researchers asked the players to estimate how many times they’d headed the ball in the past year. Personally, I have no idea, except that its not even close to 1000, I seriously doubt 100. Otherwise not even a wild guess, and I’ve been practicing once a week and played maybe 25 games, and been in a tournament or two in the last year. But these subjects gave their estimates – which I think were more like wild guesses. At an average age of 31, they aren’t mostly college players who might know how many repetitions of a drill they’d done during regular practices and be able to do the math. And they aren’t pros. They’re “amateurs.”

From the detailed article:

“Our goal was to determine if there is a threshold level for heading frequency that, when surpassed, resulted in detectable brain injury,” said lead author Michael Lipton, M.D., Ph.D. , associate director of Einstein’s Gruss Magnetic Resonance Research Centerand medical director of MRI services at Montefiore. Further analysis revealed a threshold level of approximately 1,000 to 1,500 heads per year. Once players in the study exceeded that number, researchers observed significant injury.

“While heading a ball 1,000 or 1,500 times a year may seem high to those who don’t participate in the sport, it only amounts to a few times a day for a regular player,” observed Dr. Lipton, who is also associate professor of radiology, of psychiatry and behavioral sciences ), and of the Dominick P. Purpura Department of Neuroscience at Einstein.

I wonder if these researchers are soccer players? If you played or practiced EVERY DAY of a given year, you’d have to head the ball 3 times a day minimum to reach this level. But no amature soccer player gets on the field this much. Amateur soccer players have real jobs and get out to play on the weekends. Maybe summer afternoons after work or something – but still – it doesn’t add up. So something is badly wrong with the research here.

As I was describing above, almost every header is different. The impacts are different, with different force at different angles. The amount of impact your head absorbs, the amount your head moves, varies. So I am wondering if the researchers grossly overestimated the amount of impacts necessary to cause symptoms, or what other part of the picture I’m missing. It concerns me, especially about kids. Helmets aren’t really the answer, because they don’t prevent the brain from getting moved inside the skull, which is really what causes all these problems.

I will read more and revisit this.