Too many headers risks brain injury, warn doctors

Is heading a football potentially damaging?

Repeated heading of a football leads to an increased risk of brain injury, doctors have warned.

Researchers in the US studied MRI scans of 38 amateur football players and found that those who headed the ball over 1,000 to 1,500 times a year showed significant signs of changes to the brain.

Dr Michael Lipton, who led the study, said the people who headed the ball most were “much more likely to find changes in the brain that were extremely similar to what we see in people with concussion or mild traumatic brain injury.”

Dr Lipton’s team found a heading “threshold” of approximately 1,000 times a year, below which no damage appears to be done, although further studies are required.

“1,000 times may seem like a lot but we had players who were heading the ball more than 6,000 times a year,” said Dr Lipton, of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

The results, presented yesterday at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America, showed that brain regions responsible for attention, memory and visual functions were affected.

Alongside the imaging study, the researchers also found that the more heading people had done in the last year, the more likely they were to perform poorly on cognitive tasks, especially on tests of attention.

“Putting together the imaging findings and the cognitive findings, not only can we see something in the brain that looks like it might be a traumatic consequence of heading the soccer ball a lot, or perhaps too much, but that there might be real life consequences to that exposure as well,” Dr Lipton added.

But Dr Andrew Rutherford of Keele University, who studies the neuropsychological consequences of heading a football, was unconvinced by the results.

“I would be fairly sceptical,” he told Sky News. “People who head a football are competing. They clash heads and get hit by the elbows of other players. Unless that is controlled you do not know whether you are looking at the consequences of concussion.”

Dr Lipton conceded more research was required, while calling on football authorities to take the lead.

“This is preliminary information that is very compelling and I think pushes us to do further research to understand what the problem is and how we can deal with it.

“I really believe that it is incumbent on the people who are in control of soccer, such as youth soccer organistations, to get involved and be at the forefront of doing the research that will define the safe parameters and determine if, what and how its safe for this type of play to continue.

“The hopeful message of the study is that there seem to be a safe range of parameters in which you can play the game and even head the ball.”

Dan Pope, Club Website editor

Are headers bad for you? Have your say!

Are you concerned about these results? Or are you completely sceptical of them?  Would you like to see more studies carried out?  Will cries of ‘on me head son!’ soon be a thing of the past?

Have your say in our comments section below!

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Dan Pope
Writer at Teamer
Freelance writer, editor and copywriter, with a passion for grassroots sport. A right back turned football writer, Dan is the former editor of Club Website and has been lucky enough to work in the field of grassroots and community sport for the last 10 years.

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  1. Dr Lewis Elford on November 30, 2011 at 5:59 pm

    We, as a Reg Charity and a Football Club,have been saying this for at least 5 years. No coach is allowed to have heading exercises for 10 minutes in a training session and in the U8,9 10, 11,&12 are only allowed to do heading exercises for no more than 5 minutes in any training session.
    The results of this research justify what we have been doing and this article will be shown to all coaches this coming weekend.

  2. daz wilkie on November 30, 2011 at 6:59 pm

    totally sceptical of this report a bit like all eggs carry salmonella. i didnt stop eating them either, surely it depends on the equipment being used i.e how hards the ball what force is the child putting into his/her headers. has any club stopped its members boxing or any other contact sport.

  3. Ross Lacelles on December 1, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    Im a very good header of the football, but i can never seem t time it right, i would advise any starter to not header the football, and keep it on the floor.

  4. Adam Holloway on December 1, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    Being a past footballer, i have headed many a ball at a younger age of 8, and my IQ has significantly dropped. But, i still made it to be a doctor, so you should be fine to follow your career path. Many thanks, Dr. Adam Brett Simon Holloway. x

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