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Brain damage could result from soccer ball 'heading'

In recent weeks, we have written about the risk of brain injury believed to be inherent in the sports of football and hockey. Now, a new study suggests that soccer, or more specifically the act of 'heading' a soccer ball, could lead to head injuries in players, with lasting effects on coordination and thinking skills.

Heading is a soccer technique in which a player uses his or her head to hit the soccer ball, often in an effort to avoid the rule that prohibits soccer players from touching the ball with their hands. The new research was conducted by performing MRI tests on 32 amateur soccer players who head balls an average of 436 times per year. The tests revealed that players who headed balls more than 1,000 times a year had abnormalities in their brains' white matter, which appeared similar to the traumatic brain injuries that often result from motor vehicle accidents.

Specifically, frequent headers showed abnormalities in the areas of the brain that are responsible for memory, attention, high-level visual functions and physical mobility. Researchers found no similar malfunctions in the brains of players who headed balls less frequently.

In recent years, studies have reached conflicting conclusions about whether heading increases the potential for brain injury in soccer players. The researchers who conducted this most recent study admit that more research needs to be done, specifically that which controls for age, alcohol use, and previous head injuries. Until that happens, soccer players are advised to practice proper heading technique, which involves keeping the head, neck and torso in a straight line while striking the ball with the forehead, instead of twisting the body while hitting the ball.

Source: USA Today, "Heading a soccer ball 'could lead to brain damage'," John Leighty, Nov. 30, 2011

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