soccer headgear

Can Soccer Headgear Reduce Brain Injuries?

As a 3-year-old, Patrick Grange reportedly loved to toss a soccer ball into the air and practice heading it into a goal. Grange specialized in the skill throughout high school, college and a semi-professional career. That career ended when he died from brain damage at age 29.

Could soccer headgear have saved his life? Not if the damage came from heading the ball, a new study suggests.

I’ve never actually seen anyone wearing soccer headgear. But a handful of companies are selling it, FIFA accepts it and a handful of leagues have required it. Others are waiting to find out if soccer headgear really works.

It’s an important question. Soccer players average five head injuries for every hundred hours they play, according to a recent report. And in U.S. colleges, women who play soccer get more concussions than men who play American football.

Promising Studies on Soccer Headgear

In the past, researchers have examined soccer headgear in a couple of ways. In 2005, FIFA researchers banged crash dummy heads against each other, with and without soccer headgear. The head with the headgear absorbed much less force.

And in a 2007 survey, teenaged players in Canada who wore soccer headgear for a season were half as likely to report concussions as those who played bare-headed.

Then on Tuesday researchers from around the United States reported in Research in Sports Medicine on a new approach to the problem. They asked 25 volunteers to head a ball 15 times for a quarter of an hour.

Some of the volunteers wore soccer headgear while others hit the ball with their bare heads. The two groups took tests of their reaction time and memory before and after the heading exercise.

The volunteers wearing the soccer headgear actually showed a greater increase in forgetfulness than the bare-headed volunteers. They showed slower reaction times after the heading, as well.

How can we explain the contrast between the old studies and the new one?

The Soft Object

The answer may lie in the way that brain injuries occur in soccer. The contact between players’ heads and the soccer ball gets a lot of attention because it sets soccer apart from most other sports. In fact, I can’t think of any other sport where players deliberately hit anything with their heads.

But soccer balls are relatively soft, much softer than heads. In a collision between a softer object and a harder one, the softer object absorbs most of the energy by changing shape.

Helmets in American football and other sports may be hard to the touch, but they are softer than a skull, so they absorb the energy of players’ collisions.

In the FIFA laboratory experiment, the researchers also fired soccer balls at the crash dummy heads. They found that the soccer headgear barely affected the impact. And this sort of impact doesn’t cause most concussions.

Quoting the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission among others, the FIFA researchers noted that about 40 percent of head injuries in soccer come from player-to-player contact. Head-to-ball contact only made up 12 percent to 24 percent of the injuries. (Other head injuries occurred from colliding with an object, such as a goal post.)

They concluded that headgear might serve a useful purpose, but the manufacturers should redesign it to protect against the type of injury that occurs most often.

We’ll never know what caused Grange’s brain injuries. An autopsy showed extensive frontal lobe damage, similar to what researchers have sometimes found in American football players.

And his parents told the New York Times that he had fallen hard as a toddler, been knocked unconscious in a high school game and once needed stitches after an on-field collision in college.

Soccer and Long-Term Damage

Grange’s story has added weight to one side of an ongoing debate about whether soccer players are suffering long-term brain damage from their sport. But the question is far from settled.

Before requiring soccer headgear, I’d like to see a study where players are randomly assigned to wear it for a season. You could track the head injuries in both groups for a season, and test the players’ memory, attention and reaction times before and after the season.

That type of study would answer the question better than any of the previous studies. Dummy heads in a laboratory don’t have all the properties of real heads in real games. A survey of players could be affected by all kinds of differences between the group that wore soccer headgear and the group that didn’t. And last week’s study didn’t look at collisions at all.

I don’t wear protective soccer headgear, and I don’t know anyone who does. I’m sure if I showed up on the field with a padded headband, my friends would roll their eyes.

But I’m also old enough to remember when hardly anyone wore shin guards. Today FIFA requires them for sanctioned matches… even though it apparently never got around to testing whether they actually prevent injuries in such games.

Maybe FIFA should sponsor that study, as well. Then we’d all know what to wear on our shins as well as our heads.

Photo: Petr Čech warming up with Chelsea F.C. by Warrenfish

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5 thoughts on “Can Soccer Headgear Reduce Brain Injuries?”

  1. Thank you for your honest comments on this important issue. Your point about injuries is very important, and the study you outlined should be possible, with a large population of players studied (probably 700+ players would be needed for 2 seasons to be able to detect a difference)
    The real problem may be in the repeated headers, not the head to head contact. This will require a very well designed trial. The issue of strength of neck muscles to stabilize the head – women appear to have greater accelerations than men – leads to the premise that strengthening neck muscles should be part of the preparation before young players are taught to head balls. (this may already be the uniform practice in youth soccer- I hope it is)

    1. I’d love to see this study done. It would be expensive, but FIFA can certainly afford it and has no excuse for not doing it. (To be fair, FIFA is way ahead of most major sports organizations in funding research on injury prevention; the FIFA 11+ program is exemplary and was validated with randomized controlled trials of this type.) Research on concussions clearly shows player-to-player contact is a much bigger problem than player to ball contact. Also the headgear is not designed to reduce impacts on the head from the ball; if it did, it would interfere with the way the game is played. It’s still an important question whether head-to-ball contact causes long-term sub-concussion damage, but it’s harder to answer. As far as I know, no one is teaching neck-strengthening. Whether or not this could reduce brain damage has not been shown, but it’s certainly an inexpensive intervention.

    2. You are all missing the point. The problem as stated here is the design of the existing helmets. It can’t be that hard to design a helmet that is better than a bare head!!

  2. An alternative to full concussion headgear for soccer players is the concussion headband. It has the benefits of being lighter, easier to clean and more stylish while having measurable protection benefits. While still unsure of the benefits in head-to-ball contact, these concussion headbands have been shown to offer some protection in contact with other players head, elbow etc. The less cumbersome design of this safety device may also increase acceptance by a player or team since it is less conspicuous.

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