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Footballers; Unknowingly Heading for Brain Injuries?

Head injuries, concussion in particular, have been a big talking point in sports over the last few years.  The horrific injury to Ryan Mason this weekend has shown how dangerous accidental collisions can be in the sport, even though they are few and far between.  In case you missed the incident, Mason, of Hull City, jumped up for a header with Chelsea centre back Gary Cahill.  Milliseconds after Mason headed the ball away, Cahill, in an attempt to beat Mason to the ball, accidentally head butted Mason causing both players to forcefully drop to the ground.  The sickening “crunch” noise made by the players’ heads striking each other was picked up by television microphones and could be heard by the fans behind the Chelsea goal.  After 8 minutes of stoppage time, it became obvious that Mason’s injury was serious.  He was taken off the pitch on a spinal board and rushed to hospital where he had further treatment and surgery on what transpired to be a skull fracture. 

Hull City have confirmed on their website that Ryan Mason is now in a stable condition following successful surgery.  Worryingly, despite looking groggy himself and taking a while to recover from the collision, Gary Cahill was allowed to carry on for the rest of the game, although it is unknown if he did suffer any form of concussion.  Ironically, he scored with a powerful header later on in the game.

Disturbingly, this isn’t the first time this season a player may have carried on playing following a collision.  For example, in October, Anthony Martial of Manchester United suffered an accidental clash of heads with Watford defender Daryl Janmaat.  He was taken off the pitch where he received treatment, but then returned to the field of play, seemingly ok.  Moments later he lost possession in the build-up to a goal, remained on the floor and was taken off holding his head, clearly still dazed from the earlier incident

6269801596_a5051f977a_o.jpgCardiff's Kenny Miller suffers a head injury v Barnsley in 2011 (credit Flickr/joncandy/6269801596)

How does a footballer suffer from a head injury? 

Alongside the many accidental head collisions in the sport, there have been studies suggesting that even just heading the ball on a regular basis could also be a cause of brain injuries

Research at the end of 2016 by the University of Sterling found that there were significant changes in brain function from routine heading practice.  It was the first study of its kind to detect direct changes after players were exposed to everyday head impacts, rather than clinical brain injuries like concussion.  After the tests, memory test performance was reduced between 41 and 67%, returning back to normal within 24 hours, although more tests are needed to see whether the effects of heading can be 100% attributed to long term brain injuries.  It has been found that, during tests on women’s football, heading back a goal kick registered between 50g and 100g of force, is similar to receiving a boxer’s punch.  Eric Nauman, the director of the Human Injury Research and Regenerative Technologies Laboratory at Purdue University, predicts that if they could perform the same tests on a Premier League team, the force could be around 160g.

What’s more, a lot of players from the earlier years of football, most notably the former West Brom and England centre-forward Jeff Astle, have suffered with a degenerative brain disease, supposedly from heading the ball repeatedly.  Another victim is Manchester United and England 1966 legend, Nobby Styles, who contracted a degenerative brain disease linked to his playing career. 

What are the current guidelines for head injuries in football? 

The Premier League introduced rules in the 2014/2015 season which stated that any player suffering with a head injury must leave the pitch and the club doctor decides if the player is capable of continuing.  But it is not unknown that, with the pressure of the manager wanting the player to get back onto the pitch to help the team, the doctor – who is club staff – may take an unnecessary risk with the player to avoid the wrath of the manager.  Surely then, new rules must be brought in to take the decision away from the club staff and to prevent incidents like Anthony Martial’s.  According to Luke Grigg from Headway, “in only around 10 percent of concussions is there a loss of consciousness”, which means that it is easy to assume a player is ok to return to the field of play when he may not be. 

Could the risk of head injuries in the sport be reduced or prevented? 

In an attempt to prevent the cumulative effects of headers, American Soccer implemented its Recognize to Recover initiative, which is aimed at promoting safe play and reducing injuries in soccer players of all ages.  By stopping things such as “goalkeeper punts”, the idea is to stop young children, age 8-11, heading back the long, high balls.  Whilst this may well protect stateside players, who have less of a national investment in the rules of the game, I’m not confident this could be implemented in the UK any time soon – after all, you don’t need to be an avid football fan to know that a lot of football in England is played in the air.  

But will we ever be able to prevent head injuries in football without fundamentally changing how the beautiful game is played?  In my opinion, unfortunately not. Heading is a key part of the game and injuries are always a risk when two players go up for the ball.   However, we can absolutely improve treatment of head injuries following a clash of heads on the pitch.  Taking steps to reduce the pressure put on club doctors, for one, would go some way towards this, as would ensuring that there is better education on the ramifications continuing to play after a head injury could have on a player’s health, at all levels of the sport. 

Gordon_Cartwright.JPGClick here to watch my video explaining the effects of head and brain trauma

If you would like to discuss a head or brain injury with me or another member of the team, regardless of whether it’s sport related, don’t hesitate to get in touch on Gordon.cartwright@jmw.co.uk or 0800 054 6078.