Heading a soccer ball increases the risk of brain injury and cognitive impairment, according to a new study from researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University and Montefiore Medical Center.
Using advanced imaging techniques and cognitive tests on 38 amateur soccer players, researchers found that frequent headers showed brain injury similar to that seen in patients with concussions.
“Our goal was to determine if there is a threshold level for heading frequency that, when surpassed, resulted in detectable brain injury,” said lead author Michael Lipton, M.D., Ph.D., director of Einstein’s Gruss Magnetic Resonance Research Center and medical director of MRI services at Montefiore.
The study found the threshold level to be 1,000 to 1,500 heads per year. When a player exceeded that number, Lipton’s team found significant injury.
“While heading a ball 1,000 or 1,500 times a year may seem high to those who don’t participate in the sport, it only amounts to a few times a day for a regular player,” he said.
Lipton said the study findings are especially concerning as soccer is the world’s most popular sport with enthusiasm growing in the United States, particularly among children. Of the 18 million soccer players in America, 78 percent are under the age of 18.
Soccer balls can travel at speeds as high as 34 miles per hour during a recreational game and twice as fast during professional play.
Lipton’s study findings contradict a 2007 study from Sahlgrenska Academy, in Sweden, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine that found heading did not cause brain damage.
The study looked at the spinal fluid of 20 amateur soccer players. The researchers found no sins of protein markers that are typically found in patients with brain injury following successive headshots.
Lipton’s study was presented at the Radiological Society of North America 97th Scientific Assembly and Annual Meeting.