I have written several times about the conflicting data regarding the dangers of heading the ball in soccer. While traumatic events that lead to concussions can lead to later brain damage, could repetitive blows to the head over time lead to problems as players get older? The link between repetitive subconcussive blows and chronic traumatic encephalopathy has been a hot topic in football. Should soccer players worry about these blows too?

I read an interesting article by Shirley S. Wang in the Wall Street Journal recently which suggests that there should be cause for concern.

Also read: Are Abby Wambach’s headers dangerous to emulate?

Are soccer headers dangerous?

Research out the impact of soccer headers

Scientists at the Imperial College London studied the forces generated by ball-to-head contact and compared them to forces delivered by boxers’ punches. They reportedly used a size-5 soccer ball delivered repeatedly to a dummy head at 18 meters per second. This is thought to be the average speed of the ball when kicked by nonprofessional soccer players. The amateur boxers delivered punches to that same dummy head.

The researchers apparently found that the forces to the head are similar between the moving soccer balls and the punches.

The researchers announced other interesting findings from their study:

  • With higher ball pressures (more inflated balls), the forces delivered to the head increased.
  • Larger soccer balls generated greater forces than smaller ones.
  • Headgear did not have much effect on the forces delivered to the head.

Also read: Repetitive heading in soccer: Does it cause brain damage after all?

What can soccer players and parents conclude about soccer headers?

I think much more research needs to be done looking at the effects of headers in soccer over time. These studies in actual soccer players (not laboratory studies) are difficult because it can be difficult to differentiate the effects of traumatic concussions from repetitive heading. Therefore it is difficult to say that heading definitely leads to brain damage.

I still think the traumatic brain injuries are particularly dangerous in soccer. Every effort needs to be made to properly evaluate, treat and prevent these injuries.

This study does suggest some tips young athletes and their parents should consider. They should ensure that they use the appropriate size of soccer balls and not overinflate them. Also it might be useful to have kids take two or three months off from soccer each year to play other sports. This rest might give their brains time to recover from multiple headers during the season as well as potentially decrease the risk of overuse lower extremity injuries.

Heading in soccer will probably never change. Removing it would fundamentally alter the sport. But concerns about long-term brain damage, while not as common as American football, will probably increase in the coming years.