Brain damage from headers?

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US researchers warn of excessive headballs in sports

The discussion about possible health consequences of headballs has been going on for years. Taking the ball with the head is suspected of causing damage to the brain and long-term significant impairment of the mind.

In view of legendary sayings by German professional footballers such as: "Milan or Madrid - the main thing is Italy" or "A third more money? No, I want at least a quarter. “It seems reasonable to suspect that one or the other footballer has taken too many headballs and that they may have damaged his brain. A comprehensive study by US researchers from Yeshiva University in New York has now come to the conclusion that amateur footballers who often use headballs actually show signs of traumatic brain injury in the brain. The researchers around Michael Lipton presented their results at the congress of the North American Radiologist Society (RSNA)

Craniocerebral trauma from headballs? In the course of their study, the US scientists asked 38 men who had been playing amateur football since childhood about the amount of headers they had taken each year. Michael Lipton and colleagues also examined the nerves and tissue in the brain of amateur footballers using diffusion-weighted magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The evaluation of the MRI examination showed that the head balls for the nerve and brain tissue are not without consequences. The US researchers at the RSNA Congress explained that the amateur footballers, who use their heads to receive the ball particularly often, showed damage in five different areas of the brain. This affected areas of the brain that are important for attention, memory and behavior control, according to Lipton and colleagues. According to the scientists, the proven brain damage was similar to the damage that otherwise only occurs in traumatic brain injuries, i.e. severe concussions, the US researchers emphasized. Such damage to the brain, for example, is a relatively common consequence after traffic accidents, with those affected suffering from symptoms such as gaps in memory, dizziness, headache, nausea and vomiting.

Impairment of the nerve and brain tissue by headballs The damage in the brain, however, was very different among amateur footballers, depending on the amount of headballs played. The impairment of the nerve and brain tissue only occurred when there were at least 1,000 to 1,500 headballs a year, explained Michael Lipton and colleagues. Such a lot of headers (three to four a day) should be the exception even for committed amateur footballers. Nevertheless, the latest research results clearly contradict the statement made by British sports doctor Paul McCrory in 2003, who claimed that brain damage from headbands was unlikely. McCrory assumed that the balls did not hit the head with sufficient force to cause a concussion. However, the US researchers have now found that it is not the force of a single impact that causes brain damage, but "repeated heads can trigger a chain of reactions in the brain that leads to brain cell damage". Lipton and colleagues explained that the nerve fibers are not caused by a header but by the amount of ball acceptance with the head.

Headballs can cause memory and attention problems Researchers at the University of Regensburg concluded in a study of the effects of headballs on the brain this year that after 15 minutes of header training, neither the female nor the male study participants had any attention or memory were impaired. However, some women complained of headaches after completing their headball training, which was considered an indication of possible impairments. The fact that no attention or memory deficits were found in the neuropsychological tests may only be due to the relatively limited number of headers that the test subjects performed in the 15-minute training session. Because previous studies had already shown that headers can cause memory or attention problems. For this reason, the US researchers in the current study not only recorded the damage to the brain with the help of MRI, but also carried out neuropsychological tests to determine possible impairments. Michael Lipton and colleagues were able to prove that the amateur footballers who use the head particularly often (over 1,000 headballs per year) actually performed significantly better in memory tests and coordination exercises than the footballers who rarely accept the ball with their heads. The US researchers therefore caution amateur footballers of all ages and Michael Lipton proposed at the RSNA congress a kind of header regulation that limits the number of headers, especially in children. A comparable regulation already exists in baseball, where the number of hits in the US Children's League has been limited to prevent shoulder injuries.

Professional footballers without brain impairment in headballs Professional footballers, on the other hand, apparently do not need appropriate protection, because a Norwegian study from 2005 was unable to determine any neuropsychological impairments from headballs in 290 players in the Norwegian Bundesliga. Even professional footballers in positions involving a lot of headers showed no deficit in attention or memory. According to the researchers, this could be because professional footballers know how to play a header and thus minimize the risk of brain damage. However, no clear statements can be made on the basis of the Norwegian study and especially for amateur footballers and children, particular caution seems to be advised with headballs in view of possible damage to the brain. (fp)

Picture source: Anika Lehnert /

Author and source information

Video: Concussions are elusive and invisible injuries. Annegret Dettwiler. TEDxCarnegieLake


  1. Abda

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  2. Shoukran

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  3. Gardazuru

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