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Soccer Ball Heading Can Cause Cumulative Brain Damage

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Kids getting hit in the head too many times with a soccer ball can be just as dangerous as being hit in the head often while playing football. Sanjay Gupta, MD, reported recently on CNN that soccer players, a.k.a. "Footballers who often used their heads on the ball showed abnormalities similar to those found in patients with traumatic brain injury," according to scientists. 

The Daily Mail of November 29, 2011, also reported that researchers from the Radiological Society of North America examined through MRI technology the brains of 38 soccer players who began playing in childhood and who continued to play amateur soccer. They found that "the white matter of the brains of players who used their head more often was found to be similar to that in patients with traumatic brain injury." Not a happy thought if your children play soccer now, especially since soccer is currently one of the most popular sports worldwide for kids.

If there is good news at all about this, it is that Dr. Gupta maintains that hits in smaller numbers are not so troublesome, but "It’s when the number of headers reaches about 1,300 per year that the brain may begin to suffer traumatic brain damage." TimeHealth reported that "The brain changes were found in players who headed the ball 1,000 to 1,500 times a year — which amounts to a few times a day — but not in those who did so less frequently." On average, players in the study reported heading the ball more than 400 times a year.

Soccer practice is often where much of the damage takes place, with repeated head butting. Dr. Michael Lipton, lead author of the study and Director of Radiology Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, said, "Some people were reporting heading 5,000 times a year." Lipton also noted that excessive heading definitely seemed to be connected to impairment of memory and processing speed. To quote Lipton, "Soccer may not be as benign as people thought it was."

Benign? Maybe not. Having watched two daughters play soccer for more than the past ten years, in this writer's humble opinion, benign is something American soccer is not. As with all sports, parents, coaches, and players must use caution—especially with kids' heads.