Soccer headers to leave ground with possibilities of brain damage

August 23

Heading in sports is now in hot water as more and more research and studies prove it to be linked with possible brain damage, concussion and dementia especially in high contact sporting activities like football, boxing and rugby where players are at a high risk of injury.

What is a concussion?

A head injury that temporarily affects the functioning of the brain caused by a hard blow or a strong impact to the head which leads to problems with thinking and other neurological symptoms.  It can occur in any sport when there is a blow to the head, neck or body. Whereas, dementia is a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with the person’s daily life like memory loss and Alzheimer.

Dr David Reynolds, at the charity Alzheimer’s Research UK remarked “the causes of dementia are complex and it is likely that the condition is caused by a combination of age, lifestyle and genetic factors.” But recent studies have established a link between heading in sports and brain damage in contrast to the above statement. Dr Bennet Omalu was the first to discover the brain disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). “It does not make sense to control an object travelling at a high velocity with your head,” Dr Omalu remarked about soccer heading.


Did you know?  According to the International Federation of Association Football about 30 million women and girls play soccer worldwide. Published in the Journal Radiology, Dr. Michael Lipton said “Based on our study, which measured objective changes in tissue rather than self-reported symptoms, women do seem more likely than men to suffer brain trauma from heading soccer balls”. It’s still not clear why women might be more sensitive to head injury than men. The researchers suggested that factors like neck strength, sex hormones, bone strength or genetics could be the root cause. It was also noted that women reported cases of brain trauma whereas not many men reported the same.



There are Universities and research bodies entirely dedicated for the purpose of conducting high-impact, innovative research on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and other long-term consequences of repetitive brain trauma in athletes like Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Centre and Concussion Legacy Foundation.

CTE is a neurodegenerative disease found in people who have had multiple head injuries with symptoms such as behavioral problems, mood problems, and problems with thinking. The study from the University of Stirling was the first to detect direct changes after players are exposed to such head impacts on a daily basis. Let’s put out the stats for possible reported brain damage cases:

  1. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) data, 46,948 (football) and 24,184 (soccer) head injuries were treated in U.S. hospital emergency rooms in the year 2009. There was an estimated 446,788 sports-related head injuries as per the report, an increase of nearly 95,000 sports-related injuries from the prior year.
  2. According to CPSC statistics, 40 percent of soccer concussions are attributed to head to player contact; 10.3 percent are head to ground, goal post, wall, etc.; 12.6 percent are head to soccer ball, including accidents; and 37 percent are not specified.
  3. The National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research (NCCSIR) also tracks a number of statistics for “catastrophic” football injuries, which it defines as those that resulted in brain or spinal cord injury. In their study, during the 2012 college level football season there were five brain injuries that resulted in incomplete recovery. According to the same report by NCCSIR, players associated with brain trauma complained of headaches or had a previous concussion prior to their deaths. This can linked with the case of Kevin Doyle, an Irish former football player who retired on medical grounds stating that heading was causing persistent headaches.
  4. A study in 2017 published in the Journal of the American Medical Association(JAMA) found CTE in 99% of brains obtained from National Football League (NFL) players. Players are donating their brain after their death to help researchers find a solution to this “industry disease”.
  5. Heading produces a “coup-contracoup” head injury caused by bruising of the brain due to the high force and speed at which the ball strikes the player’s head. These bruises accumulate and the brain begins to develop certain chronic changes seen in Alzheimer victims.
  6. Researchers with the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University have tested and identified the industrial disease, CTE, in the brain tissue in 131 out of 165 individuals who, before their deaths has played football either professionally, semi-professionally, in college or in high school.
  7. An inquest into the death of the English footballer Jeff Astle in 2002 found that “the King” as nicknamed by his fans, suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) as repeated heading with heavy leather footballs in his early days was the cause for his brain damage. Several high-profile ex-players have been diagnosed with dementia, including 1966 England World Cup winners Nobby Stiles, Martin Peters and Ray Wilson, Liverpool legends Ron Yeats and Tommy Smith and Celtic’s European Cup-winning captain Billy McNeill.
  8. Rod Taylor, a Portsmouth, Gillingham and Bournemouth footballer donated his brain on his death and was examined by the neuropathologist Dr Willie Stewart in a similar way as Jeff Astle. It has been proved that he was suffering from dementia with lewy bodies (impairs movement, judgment, sleep and causes hallucinations) and CTE. His daughter Rachel Walden told the BBC that heading the ball should not be banned but instead the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) and the Football Association (FA) should to do more to help support former players and their families. “It’s not about changing the game, it’s about trying to get the PFA to take responsibility for their members in their hour of need” she said.



  • Pain
  • Motor dysfunction, disturbance with balance
  • Changes in senses (hear, taste, see), dizziness, hypersensitivity to light or sound
  • Shortened attention span, easily distracted, following directions, feeling disoriented, confusion and other neuropsychological deficiencies
  • Difficulty in speaking



  • The United States Soccer Federation in 2016 banned heading for all American youth soccer players aged 10 and younger. It now wisely bans the practice of heading for all players under the age of 11-12 years instead of 10 years. It limits heading for 12- to 13-year-olds to a maximum of 30 minutes a week with no more than 15-20 headers.
  • Rule changes implemented by the National Collegiate Athletic Association(NCAA) related to head-down contact and spearing in collegiate football has been distributed to all coaches and officials throughout the country. The objective is to eliminate injuries resulting from a player using his helmet in an attempt to punish an opponent.
  • The NCAA revised its 16-year-old guidelines on treatment of concussion in the NCAA Sports Medicine Handbookto better provide member institutions with appropriate responses to concussion injuries and procedures for returning athletes to competition or practice.



Considering the impact of brain damage on a player’s life occurred from soccer heading, parents hesitate to allow their children to play soccer. Restricting them from playing soccer would then eventually lead to a decline in the sport which again, is not the expected outcome. The 2015 Health & Safety Report of the NFL said that concussions in regular season games fell 35 percent over the past two seasons, from 173 in 2012 to 112 last season. Off the field, the NFL league has revised safety rules to minimize head-to-head hits, and invested millions into research. People who are still not convinced about the risks associated with heading may watch the film “Concussion” starring Will Smith, which traces the story of Bennet Omalu in 2005 revealing his discovery of CTE in the brain of former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster.

The NFL is likely to pay 1.5 billion dollars to its ex- players or their families over the issue of brain trauma caused during the play. Soccer Federations have started seeing this issue in its real seriousness and have taken immediate actions to reduce any chances for injury. As Dr. Michael Lipton said, “Rather than ban heading altogether – which probably isn’t realistic – we’d like to get a better handle on how many headers will get players into trouble”. Players are donating their brains after their death for research hoping to find a solution for it at the earliest. It’s time for soccer to take a closer look at its safety measures for all its players. With Federations imposing ban on heading we can expect a drop in the number of concussion cases and we can see players learning to use their feet to create new tricks, moves and records.

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