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Head injuries and soccer players: A matter of concern?

In the United States, the powers that be at the National Football League (NFL) have grown very concerned about the effects of repeated concussions on players. Several longtime players have been diagnosed with a degenerative brain disease – much like Alzheimer’s – called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE. Are soccer …

In the United States, the powers that be at the National Football League (NFL) have grown very concerned about the effects of repeated concussions on players. Several longtime players have been diagnosed with a degenerative brain disease – much like Alzheimer’s – called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE.

Are soccer players also at risk for CTE? Studies suggest that it seems likely.

Head Injuries in Soccer

It should come as no surprise that soccer games take the greatest toll on athletes’ legs and feet. Nevertheless, different studies have demonstrated that anywhere between four percent and 22 percent of all injuries received in the course of a soccer game are injuries to the head.

A study at McGill University found that 60 percent of college-level soccer players showed symptoms of concussion in a single season.

Finally in 2009, the American Association of Neurological Surgeons determined that emergency rooms across the United States treated 446,788 people for sports-related head injuries. Just over 24,000 of those injuries, or about five percent of the total, were related to soccer.

How do soccer head injuries occur?

By far, the most common cause of head injuries during soccer games were accidental head-to-head collisions between players. A second cause of injuries was being hit in the head by a ball (these statistics did not include intentional “heading” of the ball). Other causes included head-to-ground and head-to-goal post collisions.

What about the practice of heading?

No studies have yet isolated deliberate heading as a frequent cause of concussion or brain injury. Most physicians aren’t concerned about heading performed by trained athletes. They’re more worried about young players who had not been properly taught how and where to strike the ball with their heads.

This could also be a concern for weekend warriors, i.e. people who spend the work week answering phones and the weekends in fierce competition. Like kids, these amateur players run a higher risk of injuring themselves due to lack of training and practice.

Long-term effects of soccer head injuries

A study of Division I Norwegian soccer players revealed that 35 percent showed abnormal brain waves during an electroencephalogram; this was twice the rate of control subjects who don’t play contact sports.

Even more disturbing, a 1992 study published in Sports Medicine showed that 81% of soccer players exhibited problems with attention, concentration and memory.

Just as the NFL has had to help make American football safer for players, the FIFA needs to begin keeping track of head injuries and later cognitive disorders related to playing soccer and take steps to ensure that the game remains interesting and fun and that the players remain safe.

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