The header in soccer can be a beautiful weapon, when a player such as France’s former middie Zinedine Zidane or American Abby Wambach leaps and twists like a salmon to contact the ball and score. Soccer is the only sport that uses the head as a way to advance the ball. Given the delicacy of the human brain, a question arises of whether the technique of heading is actually safe for players. Dozens of sports scientists, pediatricians and neurologists have grappled with the question of the possible dangers of heading soccer balls.
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A player heads the ball an average of six to 12 times a game, reports neurological surgeon Alejandro M. Spiotta of the Cleveland Clinic and colleagues in a 2011 article, "Heading in Soccer: Dangerous Play?," published in the journal " Neurosurgery." When you add in training sessions, the average player may perform thousands of headers in a career. While athletes in American football, boxing and hockey risk sudden impact or contact to the head, soccer athletes may face problems from a less violent action but one performed quite frequently.
Head injuries in soccer tend to be concussions, which arise not from heading the ball purposefully but rather from a player colliding with another player, the ground or a goalpost. This is because even a fully inflated ball traveling at 70 mph is not as hard and damaging as, for example, another player’s elbow. Still, 12.6 percent of concussions in soccer do arise from heading the ball, according to one study in Spiotta’s literature survey. He reports that a second study of U.S. college soccer players found no instances of concussion from purposeful heading; concussions arose only from accidentally being struck in the head by a fast-moving ball.
Contact injuries other than concussions can be a risk to players heading the ball, notes physician Chris Koutures of the Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness and fellow investigators in a 2010 article in “Pediatrics.” A player heading the soccer ball, especially if he jumps in the air, becomes momentarily defenseless. A defender’s elbow can come smashing into the head, or the heading player can be tripped up or kicked as he returns to the ground. Neck muscle strain can also result from heading the ball.
The concern of Spiotta and other scientists is whether long-term damage can arise from heading the ball despite a lack of apparent acute injury or a concussion. Cortical atrophy, a degenerative brain disease that causes progressive decline in vision, could be one risk. Another is chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease found in wrestling, football and hockey athletes exposed to multiple concussions that leads to memory loss and aggression. Spiotta lists two cases of deaths linked to heading, involving English player Jeffrey Astle and Algeria’s Hocine Gacemia. In both cases, concussions as well as heading played a role. Further, Astle played in the 1960s and 1970s. Leather balls of that era absorbed water and became heavier and potentially more injurious to the head, neck and spine when headed. Modern synthetic balls avoid this risk.