Heading soccer balls can lead to cell damage: UBC study

Heading the ball in soccer may be hazardous to your brain health. That’s the summary of a new study out of the University of British Columbia Okanagan that examined players who redirected the ball using their heads.

Released on Tuesday, the UBC Okanagan report suggests that repetitive impacts of a soccer ball on a player’s head could cause damage to the cells of the nervous system. The findings, according to UBCO, were published recently on the website BMJ Open Sport and Exercise Medicine. The study can be viewed here.

“Soccer is unique in that playing the ball with the head is encouraged, yet players don’t wear protective headgear,” said Paul van Donkelaar, UBC Okanagan neuroscientist and senior author of the study. “Although there are a growing number of studies evaluating the wisdom of this, ours is the first to measure blood biomarkers of cell injury.”

Van Donkelaar and his research team evaluated the impact of 40 headers for their study. What they did was measure the blood levels of two nerve cell enriched proteins: tau and light neurofilament (NF-L). The 11 participants were also asked to record any concussion symptoms.

According to the study, the numbers were compared to an alternate day when participants did not contact the soccer ball with their head. On the day that participants headed, the study said NF-L levels were higher at one hour later when compared to the day that they did not contact the ball with their head. Elevated levels were also recorded one month later.

The higher NF-L levels correlated with a higher number of concussion-like symptoms such as headaches, dizziness and confusion. There was no difference in the tau levels between the groups.

“We believe this is the first study to measure blood levels of NF-L and tau prior to, immediately after, and 22 days following a series of soccer headings,” said van Donkelaar, a professor at UBCO’s school of health and exercise sciences. “These findings suggest that repetitive impacts in the form of soccer headers can cause damage to the nerve cells as measured by elevated NF-L levels and increased concussion-related symptoms.”

Van Donkelaar also said “sport-related concussion is becoming a major concern for athletes, parents, coaches and sport associations. Finding ways to improve the safety of contact sports is one key approach to mitigating the risks.”

A recent UBCO doctoral graduate student and study co-author, Colin Wallace, says that NF-L has previously been noted as a promising biomarker for the detection of head injury as elevated levels are associated with acute concussion in athletes.

“We suggest that heading in soccer should not be overlooked as a potential way to inflict damage to nerve cells,” said Wallace. “Perhaps our findings are game changers. As in hockey and other contact sports, changes in conduct and equipment should be considered.”

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