Effects of heading in soccer need more study, researchers say

Researchers warn that there is not enough attention being paid to the long term effects of repetitive heading in soccer, according to study published today.
Researchers say more study is needed on the long-term effects of repetitive heading in soccer. (Michael Probst/The Associated Press)

Researchers warn that there is not enough attention being paid to the long-term effects of repetitive heading in soccer, according to a study published today.

A lot of research has been undertaken regarding concussions in impact sports in recent years, but in a paper published on Monday in the journal Brain Injury, researchers argue that a very unique aspect to the world’s most popular sport the idea of purposely using the head to control and hit the ball  is not being carefully considered in terms of long-term consequences.

“The practice of heading, which might occur thousands of times over a player’s career, carries unknown risks, but may uniquely contribute to cognitive decline or impairment in the short- or long-term,” said Dr. Tom Schweizer, director of the Neuroscience Research Program of St. Michael’s Hospital, who co-authored the report.

“Thus, soccer players present a unique opportunity to study whether cumulative sub-concussive impacts affect cognitive functioning, similar to that of concussions.”

Soccer is played by more than 265 million people worldwide and continues to grow across the board, in part, due to the accessible nature of the sport.

Players are particularly susceptible to head and neck injuries because of the nature of the game.

Along with co-author Monica Maher, a University of Toronto master’s-degree student in neuroscience and a former goaltender with its varsity soccer team, Schweizer reviewed current works on the topic and found only 49 published papers on brain injuries in soccer, compared with the large amount of those relating to hockey.

Maher said the researchers now wanted to emphasize possible injury prevention methods.

“Use of protective headgear, limiting heading exposure, or stressing proper heading technique in younger children and increasing concussion education are all suggestions to perhaps decrease the incidence of head injury and their subsequent effects in the long run,” she said.

By reviewing other published reports, Schweizer and Maher found that concussions accounted for 5.8 to 8.6 per cent of total injuries during soccer games.

One study noted that while 62.7 per cent of varsity soccer players had concussion symptoms at some point,  only 19.2 per cent of players were aware of it as relating to head injury.

Those with a history of concussion were 3.15 times more likely to get another, according to a study.

Concussions as a result of soccer accounted for roughly 15 per cent of the total number of concussions in all sports. Of particular note was that girl’s soccer accounted for 8.2 per cent of sports-related concussions, second only after football.

Methods of injury range from contact of elbow or arm to head, head to goal post, and especially head to head. Defence players and goalies are at the greatest risk.

Those who undertake more headers were found to suffer more memory, planning and perceptual deficits.