Is Heading a Soccer Ball Bad for the Brain?

As fans glue themselves to their TVs for the World Cup finals, they will notice a signature move in professional soccer – ‘heading’ the ball. Richard Figler, M.D., explains whether ‘heading’ can put players at an increased risk for brain injury.

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CLEVELAND – ‘Heading’ the ball is a signature move in professional soccer – but is bouncing a ball off the skull bad for the brain?

According to Richard Figler, M.D., of Cleveland Clinic, contrary to popular belief, most head injuries and concussions in soccer are actually not the result of heading.

“It is the act of actually going to head the ball, where people come into contact with each other; whether it’s a head-to-head contact, or head to elbow contact, or head to shoulder contact, or getting knocked over and falling on the ground – that’s where the majority of concussions take place. Heading the ball itself is not a common cause of concussion in soccer.” said Dr. Figler.

Dr. Figler said younger children are at greater risk for concussion during soccer than teens or adults because by nature, children have smaller neck sizes and less neck strength, which can impact their ability to absorb an impact to the head.

This is why The United States Soccer Federation prohibits children younger than 11 from heading the ball during practice or competitive play.

Dr. Figler said delaying ball-heading during practice and during games is designed to allow children to grow stronger and perfect their skill to hopefully minimize the risk of concussion.

When it comes to protecting players of all ages, he said it all comes down to concussion education and awareness.

Previous research has shown that recognizing the signs and symptoms of a concussion right away, and getting an injured player off of the field, has a direct impact on their ability to recover quickly.

Dr. Figler said players, parents and coaches need to know what to look for.

“If you see somebody get hit in the head, looking dazed, looking confused; their eyes looking glossed-over; stumbling after they’ve been hit, especially at a younger age, those are all signs and symptoms of concussion and you need to get them off the field,” he said.

Likewise, if an athlete gets hit and feels an immediate headache, feels dizzy or lightheaded, confused, or has a ringing in the ears, these are also all signs that they should cease activity and be appropriately evaluated.

Dr. Figler said if a parent has a child who is interested in pursuing soccer, it’s important to make sure they have a good coach who can teach them skill development which can minimize their risk of injury.

He said it’s also good to remember that the benefit of playing sports – increased physical activity, social engagement, and better overall health both physically and mentally – often outweigh the risks that go along with it.

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