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Heading soccer balls may cause brain damage

In Health & Lifestyles on December 2, 2011 at 7:49 pm

By: Morgan Deal

"Soccer may not be as benign as people thought it was," Dr. Michael Lipton says. Photo courtesy of Google images

            A recent study led by Dr. Michael Lipton, Director of Radiology research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, shows that heading too many soccer balls may lead to deterioration in thinking and coordination. In terms of head injuries, heading soccer balls is the most dangerous cause, Dr. Robert Cantu says. Players often hit others, causing concussions while heading the ball.

            The study recruited 39 male amateur soccer players, many of whom have been playing soccer their whole lives. The players average 436 headers a year. Using advanced MRI techniques, the researchers analyzed the movement of water molecules in the brain’s white matter. In a healthy bran, the molecules move uniformly. Conversely, in a damaged brain, molecules move more randomly. The study’s results showed altered brain images caused by a high number of headers, instead of from numerous concussions. Regions of the brain responsible for memory, planning, attention, and physical mobility suffered damage from excessive heading. “Excessive heading definitely seems to be associated with impairment of memory and processing speed. Soccer may not be as benign as people thought it was,” Lipton stated.

            Pediatrician and sports medicine specialist Dr. Chris Koutures did research on youth soccer injuries, and in his review in Pediatrics, he stated that he found no connection between repeated heading and long-term head injury and/or brain damage. Lipton agrees that there have been inconsistent signals about the impact of heading, but that the issue should be looked at more closely. “It’s very possible that it’s something that people may not even really recognize,” Lipton comments.

            Headers are typically not dangerous, if practice din moderation. The results showed damage from heading when the level reaches more than 1,000 a year. “We found the real implication for players isn’t from hitting headers once in a while, but repetitively, which can lead to degeneration of brain cells,” Lipton says. Koutures states that children under then should not learn headers, as they are not developmentally ready, and that he needs more research to determine safe limits for headers. He also adds that players should reduce force on the head by using the proper heading technique – by hitting the ball with the forehead, with the head, neck, and torso in a straight line. Says Lipton, “There are threshold levels where we don’t see brain abnormalities, which means heading is not absolutely bad.”

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