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Soccer and TBI: Concussion Fears Cloud 2016 Summer Olympics

August 2, 2016

If you love watching Chelsea’s Eden Hazard or Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo race down the soccer field, zigzag between opponents, leap into the air, collide his head with the soccer ball, and send it past the defending goalie’s outstretched arms and hearing the announcer crying out “GOOOAAAALLLLLL!” you are like millions of people around the world. Heading is an integral part of the game of soccer, which is now the world’s most popular sport. Raving fans don’t see the possibility of brain injury; they see the glory of the moment and a graceful, yet subtly violent, play well done.

Broken down by figures, what fans witness is an adult regulation soccer ball weighing one pound traveling at possibly somewhere between fifty and sixty miles per hour colliding with someone’s head. The 2016 Olympic Games are set to be hosted in Rio, and soccer (FIFA) is now facing scrutiny over the familiar topics of traumatic brain injury (TBI) and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) that other sports (like boxing) and sports organizations (like the NFL and NHL) have been facing. Will growing fears cloud this entertaining game and the Olympics themselves amid clashing opinions over sports-related brain injuries?

What Is Traumatic Brain Injury?

Broadly speaking, traumatic brain injury (TBI) is damage to the brain that can be caused by many types of events. For example:

  • Acute events such as bullet wounds, car crash debris impact, or other forms of penetrating head injuries
  • Closed head injuries related to slip and fall accidents
  • Rapid deceleration injuries when the skull is stopped from its forward momentum by another object (or another player and the brain continues to move forward until it impacts the inside of the skull

In severe cases of TBI, one moment the person is functioning properly and the next they are not. Soccer players’ repeated exposure to jostling of the head and brain could result in brain injury of various degrees and can be compounded over time by the cumulative effects of multiple impacts and injuries.

What Is Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy?

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive degenerative disease caused by a single blow or multiple blows to the head. Previously, this disease was linked directly with boxing, American football, ice hockey, etc. as players of these sports were found to have CTE resulting from repeated impacts to the head. Symptoms of CTE do not typically show themselves until eight to ten years after the experience of repeated head trauma, however.

Symptoms also appear in stages and range from disorientation and headaches during the beginning stages to memory loss, social instability, dementia, vertigo, deafness, and others as the disease progresses. Unfortunately, despite the symptoms, CTE can currently only be diagnosed after death through brain tissue analysis.

Brain Injuries and Sports: An Ongoing Problem

While the labels and symptoms are different, both TBI and CTE are brain injuries. Within soccer in particular, both heading and rough play can cause brain injury.

Any type of professional sport where there is impact with another player, ball, barricade, or the field increases the risk of players incurring brain injuries. In the wake of increasing publicity and awareness about the issue of sports and brain injuries, the world will be watching the soccer action at the Rio games carefully, and with each dramatic collision and heading of the ball, more steam will surely rise within the discussion of soccer-related brain injuries.

Recently, one of the notable soccer players associated with CTE was Jeff Astle, a legendary player for West Bromwich Albion. Astle was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s and died at the age of fifty-nine. Further analysis deemed that he did have CTE and a “remarkably scarred” brain from playing soccer. More recently, Albuquerque soccer player Patrick Grange was diagnosed with CTE after his death in 2012.

However, not all cases related to soccer need to be so serious to garner attention. Soccer is in a unique position to be scrutinized because of the style of play. Setting aside all other types of collisions that can occur during the game, the all-too-common act of heading the ball (both in professional and youth sports) becomes a risk factor for brain injury.

Looking ahead, mild head injuries that do not reach the level of CTE are a real possibility for the 2016 Olympians as several factors can affect the risk for injury when heading the ball occurs. Some of these include:

  • The angle the ball was coming at the point of impact
  • Whether the player’s neck muscles stiffened at the point of impact
  • If there was whiplash movement by the player to make contact with the ball
  • If the player expected the collision or if it was an off-guard impact.

Similar questions, scenarios, and outcomes associated with American football led the NFL to agree to pay out $765 million to settle a lawsuit initiated by over 4,500 participants. FIFA and the Olympic Games could be heading down the same path as the game of soccer is further scrutinized for its effects not only on adult players but also the millions of youth around the world playing the game.

It has been recommended that children under the age of fourteen not head the ball, as their brains are not fully myelinated. Myelin coats the neuron fibers helping with signal transmission while providing the neurons with higher strength. There have been recent studies underscoring the negative effects of heading on the brain, but opinions vary about how to address the issue. Some suggest higher enforcement of the game’s rules against rough play, others promote banning heading altogether for youth games, and some support teaching youths the proper way to head to prevent injury.

Regardless, soccer players, FIFA, and the Rio Olympics will surely find a way to move forward as the discussion grows and new findings are published. At this point, the expectation to see less heading and fewer collisions during the 2016 Olympics is naïve. However, to reduce the effects of these types of impacts, hopefully Olympic medical officials will closely monitor players after impacts and perhaps push for the benching of players after significant head impacts.

Other Causes of Brain Injury

Many of us will likely not experience sports-related brain injuries, but they can occur under many types of circumstances, from work-related accidents, occupational hazards, and unsafe working conditions to car accidents and much more.

If you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms of TBI or feel you may have been in a situation potentially causing a brain injury, contact the Law Office of William D. Cook to ensure your situation gets the expert analysis and support it deserves. We offer free consultations to help you determine if you are entitled to compensation and decide what your best course of action is moving forward. Call (800) 757-7757 or fill out our convenient online contact form today.

References

Jarrett, C. (2015, September 10). Does soccer have a brain-trauma problem? New York. Retrieved from http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2015/09/does-soccer-have-a-brain-trauma-problem.html

Keilman, J. (2015, April 29). Heading a soccer ball is risky even if concussions rare, researchers say. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-soccer-headers-concussion-met-20150428-story.html

Knight, S. (2014, October 2). The cost of the header. The New Yorker. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/news/sporting-scene/cost-header

Parrish, R. (2015, April 23). How much force does the average soccer player use to kick the ball? Livestrong. Retrieved from http://www.livestrong.com/article/441962-how-much-force-does-an-average-soccer-player-kick-the-ball-with/

Sneed, A. (2014, June 26). Does heading a soccer ball cause brain damage? Soccer heading poses greater risk to youth players. Scientific American. Retrieved from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/does-heading-a-soccer-ball-cause-brain-damage/

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