Posted on December 4, 2011 · Posted in Brain Injury

Football and ice hockey aren’t the only sports that are causing long-term brain damage in athletes. Soccer is, too.

That was the finding of a study done Dr. Michael Lipton of New York City’s Montefiore Medical Center, a researcher who presented the results of his work to the Radiological Society of North America late last month.

BBC News reported on Lipton’s comments, which included, “Heading a soccer ball is not an impact of magnitude that will lacerate nerve fibers in the brain. But repetitive heading could set off  a cascade of responses that can lead to degeneration of brain cells.”

In his test Lipton did brain scans on 32 amateur soccer players who frequently “headed” the ball. The bottom line was that there was no damage to the brains of players who hit the ball with their heads 1,000 times or less a year. But when there were more head hits than that, Lipton found “patterns of damage similar to that seen in patients with concussions,” BBC News reported.

To non-soccer players, hitting a ball with your head 1,000 times a year may appear to be a big number, but “it amounts to a few times a day for a regular player, say the researchers,” BBC News reported.

Obviously, Lipton’s study didn’t involve a large sample of players, and some are saying that much more research must be done to confirm his findings.

But anecdotally, there is at least one death that’s been blamed on “heading.” British soccer player Jeff Astle died in 2002, at age 59, after having cognitive issues. “The coroner ruled that his death resulted from a degenerative brain disease caused by heading heavy leather footballs,” BBC News  reported. 

Soccer balls are not as heavy now as they were back in the day when Astle was playing, but they can move at speeds ranging from roughly 30 mph to 60 mph an hour.

In Lipton’s research, he used diffusion tensor imaging, which shows brain tissues and nerves. The test volunteers told researchers how many times they had headed the ball, and those who had done it often showed mild traumatic brain injuries in their scans, according to BBC News.

Lipton’s scans found that several areas of the brain were injured by repeated heading, including the front of the organ and the back of it near the skull. These parts of the mind govern “attention, memory, executive functioning and higher-order visual functions,” BBC News reported.

The test volunteers who frequently headed the ball also didn’t perform as well on tests that measure verbal memory and reaction times.     

There are skeptics about Lipton’s findings. One claims the soccer players are suffering mild brain injury because they are slamming their heads with other players when they head the ball, not from heading the ball per se.

No matter how you slice it, soccer players are suffering brain injuries, and measures should be taken to protect them.

About the Author

Attorney Gordon S. Johnson, Jr.
Past Chair Traumatic Brain Injury Litigation Group, American Association of Justice :: 800-992-9447