Soccer is the most popular sport in the world, with more than 265 million amateur and professional players. It is the only sport in which participants purposely use their head to hit the ball. The practice known as “heading” is considered as an offensive or defensive move in which the player’s unprotected head is used to deliberately impact the ball and direct it during play.
A soccer player can be subjected to an average of 6–12 incidents of heading the ball per competitive game, as well as in practice sessions. Soccer players are prone to traumatic brain injuries, 22 percent of which are concussions. But while there has been a lot of discussion about concussions in contact sports, only recently has the scientific community focused on heading as an additional cause of cumulative brain injury.
Thanks to a new study from the United Kingdom, sporting bodies and members of the public can see clear evidence of the risks associated with repetitive impact caused by heading a soccer ball. The study is the first to show that routine heading of a soccer ball can cause damage to brain structure and function while being too minor to cause a concussion.
In the study, amateur players, ages 19 to 25 were asked to head machine-projected soccer balls at speeds modeling a typical practice. Each player was asked to perform a rotational header — redirecting the soccer ball — 20 consecutive times during 10-minute sessions.
Researchers observed changes in motor response and memory in the five women and 14 men participating in the study. They found that immediately following these sessions, subjects’ error scores on both short- and long-term memory tests were significantly higher than subjects’ baseline performances. Even after just a single session of heading, memory-test performance was reduced by as much as 67 percent, though the alterations appeared to clear within 24 hours. The researchers caution against taking this temporary disruption as a sign of no long-term damage.
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