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The dangers of repetitive “heading”

Often seen as a safer, less exciting alternative to full-contact sports, soccer has risks of its own. A recent study suggests that using your head could lead to brain damage.

Up until the World Cup in 2010, soccer was seen as a second-hand sport in most parts of the US. Aside from beauty shots of David Beckham, the professional women’s team usually got the most attention. But as the men’s national team raised through the ranks in South Africa, sports bars around the country filled with belligerent hooting and hollering.

Such celebrations are usually reserved for the Big Four in the sporting world: football, basketball, baseball and hockey. Soccer’s style of play can pale in comparison to home runs, slam dunks, and hard hits, all filled with grueling physicality or astonishing hand-eye coordination. Chances are that soccer’s no-hands rule won’t change anytime soon, but the game may be developing a more physical reputation, or at least a more dangerous one.

In a recent study, researchers at New York City’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine found that amateur athletes who frequently “headed” a soccer ball showed increased signs of brain degeneration, reports CNN. Casual players don’t seem to be at risk, but once the number of headers per year crosses the 1,300 mark, the brain may begin to sustain damage in regions responsible for memory, planning and visual-spatial reasoning.

1,300 headers might sound extreme, but when practice time is considered, the number can be even higher. “Practice turns out to be a much bigger source of exposure than actual games,” Dr. Michael Lipton, the head author of the study, told CNN. “Some people were reporting heading 5,000 times a year.”

Games themselves can still pose a risk, because during live play opponents usually go airborne to head a ball, often colliding with one another and causing concussions. Dr. Lipton’s study did look into the concussion history of the 39 participants, but the brain scans showed anomalies from sustained heading rather than severe concussions. “If there is a chronic injury due to this kind of activity, it’s not something that’s going to jump out on the radar,” Lipton told CNN.” It’s very possible that it’s something that people may not even really recognize, even though we could pick it up by testing for it.”

The tests used a type of magnetic resonance called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), which tracks how water molecules move through white matter in the brain. Molecules in a healthy brain follow a uniform pattern through white matter, while in injured brains they have a chaotic and more random movement. Similar anomalies usually present themselves with traumatic brain injuries resulting from car accidents, reports the USA Today.

It is possible to head without injury. By using the forehead to hit the ball, while holding the upper body in a straight line, players can minimize the force of impact. “There are threshold levels where we don’t see brain abnormalities, which means heading is not absolutely bad,” Lipton told the USA Today. “Rules could be developed to alleviate adverse affects by limiting the number of headers allowed for certain age groups or skill levels of play.” But if soccer becomes any less physical, it could fall even lower on the scale of beloved American sports.


By Editor Will Cade