Another typical Saturday of Major League Soccer action came and went last weekend.
In a match between the reigning league champion, LA Galaxy, and Real Salt Lake, 20 year-old Columbia native, Olmes Garcia, scored what would eventually be the game-winning goal in a 3-1 victory over the defending champions. He would score two goals on that night: the second of which, the game winner, he struck with his head.
Though a common soccer play, new research points to it being more dangerous than previously thought. Published in the online edition of the journal, Radiology, researchers from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University in New York City discovered soccer players that “head” a soccer ball frequently are more likely to demonstrate poorer performance on memory tests and have brain abnormalities similar to those found in traumatic brain injury patients.
“I was not surprised to see an association between heading and imaging changes,” said Einstein researcher Dr. Michael Lipton, “but the strength of the cognitive changes and the clarity of the threshold effects were somewhat unexpected in this first study of a relatively small number of players.”
Lipton and his colleagues observed the brains of 37 adult soccer players using diffusion tensor imaging, known as DTI, a more advanced version of MRI that shows microscopic changes in the brain's white matter and axons. Axons are the nerve fibers by which parts of the brain communicate with each other. The machine produces a measurement, called fractional anisotropy, known as FA, which characterizes the movement of water molecules along axons. Healthy white matter measures high in FA with a uniform distribution of water throughout the brain, while low FA values have a more scattered allocation. The latter corresponds with cognitive impairment in patients with traumatic brain injury.
“We do not have evidence at this point that can be generalized into recommendations,” Lipton said. “Moreover, it may well fall out, based on these data, that modest amounts of heading are tolerable by most people. Further research is needed to figure this out.”
A contingent in the soccer community is willing to wait for that research. Dr. Max Wintermark, chief of neuroradiology at the University of Virginia and avid soccer player, said the findings don't change his perspective on the soccer move.
“You look at the biggest soccer players in the world, one of them was Pele from Brazil. He has done fine his whole career, and he has done a lot of heading,” he said. “Again, it's different for the type of sport. We know about football players and concussions, or boxers who end up with cognitive difficulties as a result of their sport. I follow soccer, and I don't know of any professional player who has ended up in that kind of condition.”
Pierre Meloty-Kapella, who, like many in the study, has played soccer for over 20 years, shares a similar perspective. “I don't think kids really learn at an early age how to head the ball,” said Meloty-Kapella, who currently plays for NYAC in New York at the semi-pro level in the National Premiere Soccer League. “Here in the US, it's not til you're much older that you learn the correct technique. Especially, the way the younger kids just throw their heads at the ball, and it may hit the top or back of their heads. If you learn how to do it correctly, there shouldn't be any trauma or pain associated with it.”
Though the players, themselves, may not want to see a change, similar studies in football in baseball have spurred preventative measures, like advanced helmet technology in football, to protect from injuries inherent to those sports. However, any changes that come from future studies will have to come from a consensus from the vast global soccer community.
“That ultimately is a question for the players and soccer organizations,” said Lipton. “I would think it could be possible, just as pitching in little league baseball was curtailed, but not eliminated, leading to significant decrease in upper extremity injuries.”