Soccer, also known as football or “the beautiful game,” is the most popular sport in the world, being played by over 250 million people in 200 countries worldwide. While soccer is not a full contact sport, it still carries risk of injury. The header, when a player uses their head to direct the ball, is a common play in soccer which carries its own unique risk of injury, most notably head injuries and concussions.
A study published this July in the Journal Radiology investigated the effect of headers on the brain in 98 young, healthy, amateur soccer players. The soccer players each had multiple years of experience playing soccer, including an average number of headers per year over 450 headers for both men and women. The soccer players were half male (49), half female (49) and had an average age of 26 years of age.
The researchers used an advanced MRI technique in order to visualize the brain tissue of the soccer players. They utilized fractional anisotropy (FA), a method of measuring water molecule movement in the brain in order to measure damage to the white matter of the soccer players’ brains.
The results of the study showed that there were more disordered white matter patterns inside the brains of the soccer players who averaged a larger number of headers in the previous year, while players with a lower number of headers had less white matter damage.
Another alarming trend emerged from the results of the study. The white matter damage measured by the researchers was about five times higher in women compared to men who headed the ball the same number of times the previous year.
“The important message from these findings is that there are individuals who are going to be more sensitive to heading than others,” said the study’s lead author, Michael L. Lipton, M.D., Ph.D. at Gruss Magnetic Resonance Research Center at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. “Our study provides preliminary support that women are more sensitive to these types of head impacts at the level of brain tissue microstructure.”
“In both groups, this effect we see in the brain’s white matter increased with greater amounts of heading,” Lipton said. “But women exhibit about five times as much microstructural abnormality as men when they have similar amounts of heading exposure.”
While this study was not designed to find a reason for this difference in susceptibility, Lipton mentioned that possible reasons include differences in the musculoskeletal structure of the neck and head or sex hormone differences between men and women.
Do you have questions about the impact of sports-related injuries on your health or on the health of your family? Ask your naturopathic doctor.