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Heading Soccer Ball Linked to Brain Injury

Regularly hitting a soccer ball with your head -- even just a few times a day -- has been linked to traumatic brain injuries, researchers report.

Nov. 29, 2011 (Chicago) -- Using your head in soccer may not always be the best thing.

Regularly hitting a soccer ball with your head -- even just a few times a day -- has been linked to traumatic brain injuries, researchers report.

In a preliminary study, 32 amateur soccer players who "headed" the ball more than 1,000 to 1,500 times a year, the equivalent of a few times a day, had abnormalities in areas of the brain responsible for memory, attention, planning, organizing, and vision.

Young men who headed the ball less frequently did not show these abnormalities on brain scans, according to the study, presented here at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.

A previous study of the same 32 amateur soccer players also showed that those who headed the ball more than 1,000 times a year scored worse on tests of memory and reaction time, says researcher Michael Lipton, MD, PhD, associate director of the Gruss Magnetic Resonance Research Center at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in Bronx, N.Y.

"The new study shows that there may be a safe range where you can head the ball without adverse consequences to the brain," Lipton tells WebMD.

Until more soccer players are studied for longer periods of time, however, "we don't have enough evidence to say 'XX' amount of heading is absolutely bad for you. So my advice is to try to minimize heading, especially during practice drills where players often head the ball back and forth 30 or more times at a shot," he says.

AAP: Not Enough Data on Heading

Soccer is one of the world’s most popular sports. More than 250 million people play regularly, according to FIFA, the sport’s governing body. In the United States, up to 18.2 million people play, with 78% under age 18.

American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) guidelines say there is not enough evidence to support a recommendation that young soccer players completely refrain from heading the ball. However, the academy recommends that heading be minimized.

A hard hit can cause symptoms of a concussion, including lightheadedness, confusion, and headache, that require immediate attention, Lipton says.

But this is the first study in which players underwent a series of imaging scans to see what's going on inside the brain, Lipton says.

Are Children More Susceptible to Head Injuries?

The average age of the players studied was 31; all had participated in the sport since childhood. Lipton says younger players might be even more susceptible to brain injury from heading.

Max Wintermark, MD, associate professor of radiology at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, tells WebMD that the fact that the soccer players who had brain injuries also tested poorly on tests of memory gives strength to the findings.

Still, further study is needed, he says. "With small numbers, sometimes findings are due to chance," he says.

These findings were presented at a medical conference. They should be considered preliminary as they have not yet undergone the "peer review" process, in which outside experts scrutinize the data prior to publication in a medical journal.

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