Deflecting the ball using the head, a common practice among players in football (soccer) games, may not be as harmless to the brain as was previously thought, says a new research.
A study of more than 200 adult amateur football players of both genders found that regularly ‘heading’ the ball, as well as suffering accidental hits to the head, significantly boosted a player's risk of concussion.
While the prevailing wisdom is that routine heading in soccer is innocuous and we need only worry about players when they have unintentional head collisions,, the new study suggests that such practices put athletes at risk of traumatic brain injury.
In prior studies, other researchers had found that "30 percent of soccer players who had more than 1,000 headings per year had a higher risk of microstructural changes in the brain's white matter, typical of traumatic brain injury, and worse cognitive performance.
Exploring the issue further, the new study focused on online questionnaires answered by 222 adult amateur soccer club players in the New York City area, both male and female. All had played soccer at least six months during the prior year.
Men averaged 44 headers in two weeks, the survey found, while women averaged 27. One or more accidental head impacts, such as a ball hitting the back of the head or a head colliding with another player's knee, were reported by 43 percent of women and 37 percent of men.
Players who regularly headed the ball were three times more likely to have concussion symptoms than those who did not head the ball often. Players who suffered accidental head impacts two or more times within a two-week span were six times more likely to have concussion symptoms than those without accidental head impacts, the findings showed.
Of those who headed the ball or reported accidental head impacts, 20 percent had moderate to severe concussion symptoms, according to the report.
“Our findings certainly indicate that heading is more than just a 'sub-concussive' impact, and that heading-related concussions are common," said the researchers. "We need to give people who have these injuries proper care and make efforts to prevent multiple head impacts, which are particularly dangerous," they added.
The researchers noted that many players who head the ball frequently are experiencing classic concussion symptoms, such as headache, confusion and dizziness, during games and practice, even though they are not actually diagnosed with concussion. Because these injuries go unrecognized and unmanaged, there may be important clinical consequences for the short and long term, they said.