‘Heading’ for trouble: Doctors warn of soccer move

LEE’S SUMMIT, Mo. — Soccer players are headstrong about headers.

“Header goals are the best part of the game,” says Mallory Lepper, a member of Futura Academy Forte, a 14-and-under team.

The team does ten headers in a drill, and some players do twice that in a game. The girls have headed the ball for years.

“I started doing them around age six,” says Peyton Trester.

Then it hits you. What’s that do to the brain?

“Do we have some concern that hitting your head multiple times over and over could result in some damage even if it’s not a big hit? We do worry about that,” says Dr. Greg Canty, a sports medicine specialist at Children’s Mercy Hospital.

The focus has been on concussions. Jensen Conner, a soccer player at Bishop Ward High School, is seeing Dr. Canty after suffering a concussion from a shot on goal to her head.

“It’s scary. It’s very, very scary,” says Jensen.

Researchers are now also looking at preconcussive impacts from headers. In one small study of Houston high school girls that was published in PLOS One, soccer players were slower on thinking tests right after repeatedly heading the ball compared to girls who didn’t play.

Other new, small studies have found brain abnormalities in adult soccer players who hadn’t had concussions. They nonetheless had changes in the white matter similar to those seen in traumatic brain injury patients. That’s led to concern that doing headers could boost the chances of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. It’s the brain disease seen in boxers and retired football players. CTE causes memory loss, confusion, aggression, depression and dementia.

A soccer mom isn’t worried.

“I think if it were done over and over constantly, that would be a problem. But the way they do it, they’re only heading the ball a few times a game,” says Stephanie Newsom.

But Dr. Canty says a generation ago, kids weren’t playing soccer year-round.

“We now have this population. It’s probably going to take 20 to 30 years of research to figure out what changes take place,” he says.

Some youth teams are wearing headgear for protection, but Dr. Canty says the bands have not been shown to reduce the impact of the ball. They may reduce head-to-head or other impacts. He and some other experts say why not limit the potential for harm by waiting to do headers?

“I try to encourage folks to wait ’til they’re 14 or older,” says Dr. Canty.

Brad Childers, the Futura Academy Forte coach, says taking away that part of the game for kids would be difficult.

“But if they’re not all there mentally, we need to make some adjustments,” Childers says.

Jensen says a concussion and all the talk about headers aren’t going to stop her.

“I love the game of soccer,” says Jensen.

But heads-up about the possible risk.

Dr. Canty says if your children are going to do headers, be sure they’re taught proper technique, they have enough neck strength, and they’re using the right-sized ball for their age. He also says take a break. Don’t play year-round.

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