20 June 2019

Footballers could be at risk from headers, research is currently underway into the long-term health effects

Football players could be at risk of developing cognitive problems from heading the ball and from experiencing concussions, but more evidence is needed to investigate the long-term consequences of mild traumatic brain injury in football players, researchers have told delegates at Occupational Health 2019.
Researchers, Professor Damien McElvenny and Professor John Cherrie gave a presentation to delegates at the conference outlining their involvement in The HEADING study, which is currently underway, it is looking into concussive and subconcussive head impacts to see if there is an association with cognitive decline in the long-term.
The effects of sustaining head injuries in other sports such as boxing have been known for decades and it’s thought that footballers could be at risk of similar health problems.  The researchers are concerned that Return to Play policies are not based on the long-term consequences of concussive and sub-concussive head impacts, because good quality research is not currently available.
Footballers can sustain head injuries when their head comes into contact with the ball, with other players or objects on or around the pitch as well as when diving.  The researchers want to understand whether heading the ball more or receiving concussions could be putting players at a greater risk.
Professor McElvenny and Professor Cherrie who are involved with the HEADING study said they will be looking at around 300 former football players between the ages of 50-89 years of age.  They will focus on the exposure to heading and concussion in the game and assess the player’s physical and cognitive abilities, recruitment for the study is about to commence.
There are a number of different factors effecting how much a professional football player heads the ball including: the footballer’s playing position, the type of ball used, the speed of the impact, the level of club played in and the physical fitness of the footballer.
The researchers detailed how the exposure to head injuries in footballers could be assessed.  They said that looking at the sequence of events as opposed to one off events is likely to be beneficial.  Questionnaires will be used to ask footballers about the frequency of head contacts, previous research and validation exercises will be carried out that may include analysing video recordings of matches between the 1950’s to 1990’s.
The researchers are also looking at how the impact of the ball can be quantified by measuring the acceleration from impacts using sensors attached to a footballer’s head.
Researcher Professor Damien McElvenny said: “There is currently no strong scientific evidence that the occasional concussion or repetitive heading of footballs have a long-term effect on a player’s cognitive or general health.  However several studies have been carried out that suggest this might be a possibility. 
“It is thus important that the long-term cognitive and general health consequences of playing professional football are evaluated as soon as possible.” 
In 2015 The United States Soccer Federation announced a ban on headers for children aged under 10 years and a limit on headers for children aged 11 to 13 years.  If this research finds an association between headers and cognitive issues, then this could have wider consequences for heading in football in the future.

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