Does heading a soccer ball raise the risk of brain injury?

As a mother of three kids who play soccer, I was disturbed to read headlines yesterday declaring that repeatedly heading soccer balls leads to subtle brain injuries that can result in memory loss and learning difficulties. While my own kids don’t head the ball much (if at all), I was thinking that surely this finding, presented yesterday at the Radiological Society of North America Meeting, would result in calls for an outright ban on heading balls on school soccer leagues.

“We’re not saying that at all,” study co-author Dr. Michael Lipton, associate director of the Gruss Magnetic Resonance Research Center at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, said in an interview. “But we do need more research to determine what the safe threshold is, especially in kids.”

The small preliminary study of 32 amateur adult soccer players found that those who headed balls more than 1,000 to 1,500 times a year had brain scan abnormalities similar to those seen from traumatic brain injuries caused by car crashes and other accidents.

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Such abnormalities could cause problems in brain regions responsible for memory, attention, planning, organizing, and vision, but the researchers didn’t perform neurological exams on the soccer players in this study.

Getting injured from, say, 100 head balls during a soccer season is highly unlikely, said Lipton, and there’s probably a safe range—still to be determined—where kids can head the ball without any adverse effects on the brain.

That said, he recommended minimizing heading during practice drills where players bounce the ball back and forth several dozen times from head to head.

While the American Academy of Pediatrics hasn’t called for a ban on heading the ball, it hasn’t exactly concluded that it’s safe either, saying that studies have been mixed on the cognitive effects of the practice and that there is “insufficient evidence” to determine the risks.

Most head injuries from soccer are caused by collisions with other players or with the goal posts, according to the AAP, but common sense should still prevail when it comes to allowing kids to head the ball. They should be old enough to learn the proper technique for heading—contact with the forehead, neck held rigid, and legs used to propel the player toward the ball—before they’re allowed to practice the skill.