Head injuries are a real risk for soccer players

Harold Mandel's picture
Young girls playing soccer
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Soccer is a very popular sport, but it can be dangerous. It is clearly very good for overall health in body and mind to play sports. However, without proper safety precautions sports can sometimes be dangerous. Research indicates that soccer players are at a high risk for head injuries and therefor aggressive initiatives should be taken to protect soccer players from these injuries.

At this time soccer is the most popular and fastest growing sport worldwide. However, as is true of other sports, soccer carries an inherent risk of injury, including concussion, reported the journal Brain Injury. A unique aspect of playing soccer is the use of "heading". Researchers have investigated the incidence, mechanisms, biomarkers of injury and neurocognitive outcomes of concussions and heading which are seen in soccer.

The researchers reviewed 49 articles which were relevant to this concern. It was observed that female soccer players have a higher incidence of concussions than male soccer players do. The most frequent injury mechanism for males and females is player-to-player contact. In spite of variations in research designs and study characteristics, the outcomes of concussions in soccer were found to align with the greater concussion literature.

The researchers have called for more study into the impact of repetitive heading in soccer, reports St. Michael's Hospital. In the ever increasingly popular sport of soccer, as is seen in many contact sports, players are at risk of suffering concussions from collisions with each other on the field. However, the researchers have warned that not enough attention is being given to the unique aspect of soccer dealing with the purposeful use of the head to control the ball, and the long-term consequences which are associated with repetitive heading.

Worldwide, greater than 265 million people play soccer, including 27 million soccer players in North America. Soccer players are particularly vulnerable to head and neck injuries, due to the nature of the sport. Most of these injuries are caused by unintentional or unexpected contact, such as is seen when a player collides with teammates, opponents or the playing surface.

In both the sporting and medical worlds there has been significant concern about the potential long-term cognitive and behavioral consequences for athletes who suffer from acute or repeat concussions or multiple “sub-concussive” head impacts, which are blows to the head that do not cause symptoms of concussions.

Dr. Schweizer, a neuroscientist, has said, “The practice of heading, which might occur thousands of times over a player’s career, carries unknown risks, but may uniquely contribute to cognitive decline or impairment in the short- or long-term.” Soccer players therefore offer a unique opportunity to study whether cumulative sub-concussive impacts affect cognitive functioning, in a similar manner as that of concussions.

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An examination of the research papers which reviewed the incidence of concussion in soccer, showed that concussions accounted for 5.8 percent to 8.6 percent of total injuries which are sustained during games. It was found in one study that 62.7 percent of varsity soccer players had suffered symptoms of a concussion during their playing careers, and yet only 19.2 percent realized it. In another study it was found that 81.8 per cent of athletes who had suffered a concussion had experienced two or more concussions.

Furthermore, players with a history of concussion had a 3.15 times greater chance of sustaining another concussion than those who had never had a concussion. In another study it was found that concussions sustained during soccer accounted for 15 percent of the total number of concussions which are seen in all sports. It was also seen that girls’ soccer accounted for 8.2 per cent of sports-related concussions, which is the second highest sport after football.

Investigations of the long-term effects of heading found greater memory, planning and perceptual deficits occurred in forwards and defenders, who are players who execute more headers. In one study it was found professional players reporting the highest prevalence of heading during their careers did poorest in tests dealing with verbal and visual memory as well as attention.

It was also observed that older or retired soccer players were significantly impaired in conceptual thinking, reaction time and concentration. Physical changes to the brains in players who had concussions were found with advanced imaging techniques.

The researchers wanted to emphasize possible injury prevention methods for soccer players. Suggestions have included:

1: Use of protective headgear

2: Limiting heading exposure or stressing proper heading technique in younger children

3: Increasing concussion education

The need for an emphasis on safety in sports is significant. Soccer in particular demands great attention to the risk of players for concussion due to heading. Family members, educators, coaches and team members should impress upon all soccer players why they need to be particularly
careful with their heads. With a firm commitment to safety, soccer, along with other contact sports, can be fun and healthy.

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