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Study: heading soccer balls likely a CTE brain injury risk factor

There are natural risks to playing any sport, although that risk varies. Everyone involved -- players, parents, coaches and doctors -- needs to fully understand the potential risks, so they can make informed choices about accepting them.

As you may know, however, some football players complain they were never told they were at risk of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head -- even blows that don't result in concussions. Doctors had long known of the risk of CTE in boxers, but only more recently has it been tied to other sports such as football and hockey.

Now, researchers at the VA Boston Healthcare System and Boston University have found evidence that CTE may be a substantial risk for soccer players, too. A 29-year-old former soccer player who had been thought to suffer from ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) was diagnosed posthumously with CTE.

Although no one can definitively say that the man's lifetime love of soccer led to his condition, his family says now that the CTE diagnosis fit his experience and symptoms closely. He had suffered numerous concussions, beginning at a young age. He was also known to "head" the ball frequently -- and the brain damage found after his death corresponded strikingly with the area on his skull where he would have headed the ball.

Doctors caution against drawing broad conclusions from that fact, but his family now wishes they had discouraged him from heading.

Heading the ball (typically without a helmet) does appear to increase CTE risk. Last year, a study in the journal Radiology found that "heading is associated with abnormal white matter microstructure and with poorer neurocognitive performance." Some youth soccer organizations are now recommending that children under the ages of either 10 or 14 shouldn't head balls at all.

Yet one neuroscientist interviewed by the New York Times pointed out that the human brain isn't fully developed until around age 25. And, while there may be a reasonable amount of heading that wouldn't increase CTE risk, that amount hasn't been determined.

If you or your child plays soccer, read the full New York Times piece at the link below for more information. If you're experiencing symptoms of brain trauma after any sports injury, you may want to consider seeking compensation for your medical and other costs through an injury lawsuit.

Source: New York Times, "Brain Trauma Extends to the Soccer Field," John Branch, Feb. 26, 2014

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