in all, playing soccer is not dangerous to your brain, at least based on what we know at this point in time. The data also show that heading, in and of itself, does not seem to be a significant problem, at least in those people that it has been studied. However, heading does put the player at risk in the sense of having their head make contact with a number of different objects—somebody else’s foot or head, or a goal post—so we need to put that caveat in there.”
Thus far no published study has provided direct evidence that the practice of heading a soccer ball causes long-term deficits in mental functions. Nor has any study been published that proves heading has no long-term effects. To date, the best evidence is suggestive. The long-term effects of repetitive heading will not be known until the completion of well-designed, long-term studies that evaluate players before and for years after they frequently head soccer balls. The tables on the following page summarize studies presented at the workshop, and are not a comprehensive summary of all studies relevant to head injury in soccer.
The notion that soccer might put youths at risk for brain injury has circulated in the popular media and that has led some to suggest that soccer players wear protective headgear. But as bioengineer Dr. Joseph “Trey” Crisco pointed out, there are a number of concerns with this suggestion. For one, no protective headgear currently on the market is designed to protect against concussion. Today’s helmets are designed to meet standards for reducing the risk of serious and fatal brain injury and these standards are limited to reducing injury caused by a linear acceleration, or a ‘straight on’ blow to the head. But a blow that causes concussion typically includes rotational acceleration, in which the brain gets twisted. Current helmets and standards are not designed to take this type of blow into account.
Dr. Crisco, who is the Director of Research for the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, noted that football and other protective helmets were developed based on data from experiments in which high impacts were applied to the heads of cadavers from elderly men. He questioned the relevancy of that data set to the youths and females that play soccer and suggested that helmets developed from this data may not be as protective against brain injury in youths and women as they are in men.
We talk to trainers, to equipment managers, and they are very surprised when I say that no helmet is designed to prevent concussions.”
“The concern that I have from an engineering perspective is that if you place headgear on children [who play soccer] there is going to be a limited understanding,” he said. “We talk to trainers, to equipment managers, and they are very surprised when I say that no helmet is designed to prevent concussions.” Most parents, players, and coaches are going to assume it will prevent concussions when it is not designed to do so, he noted. “And then we have the Superman phenomenon,” he added. “You place equipment on players and they believe they are less at risk so they may place themselves more at risk in getting involved in heading or head-to-head player contact than they normally would.”
Dr. Crisco suggested that it might be more cost effective to develop standards for soccer balls so that they are not likely to cause brain injury, than to do so for protective soccer headgear. The structure, weight, and other material properties of soccer balls all influence the amount of impact they can have on the head, he noted. The research needed to develop standards for soccer balls would be easier and less expensive to conduct than the research needed for soccer headgear, according to Dr. Crisco.