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Heading soccer balls could lead to traumatic brain injuries

People in Colorado may expect to hear stories of football or hockey players who have long-term brain damage from the rough hits to the head that are common in their sports, but some people in Denver may be surprised to find that new research shows that repeated heading of a soccer ball can eventually lead to brain abnormalities similar to traumatic brain injuries.

For professional and semi-professional players, this could have a huge effect in how they play and what coaches and team doctors should be recommending as part of regular play. The research shows that players who frequently head the ball, those with over 1,000 headers in a year, can develop serious brain injuries. The areas of the brain that were primarily affected controlled advanced visual skills, attention, memory and physical mobility.

As more information becomes available, it will be up to coaches and soccer teams to advise their players on how to avoid these types of injuries. Whether soccer may have to eliminate heading or whether new rules will emerge that limit the number of headers a player can perform, teams have a responsibility to keep their players relatively safe and healthy.

The most negative results were found in players with 1,000 to 1,500 headers per year. There has been previous research into how headers affected soccer players, but it focused on what sorts of cognitive damage was suffered by frequent headers.

A doctor who has also done research on heading in soccer recommends that players who wish to continue heading learn the proper technique -- a player must keep his or her torso, neck and head in one line and hit the ball with his or her forehead.

Source: USA Today HealthDay, "Heading a soccer ball 'could lead to brain damage'," John Leighty, Nov. 30, 2011

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