What Types of Collisions Are More Likely to Give You Brain Injuries
Sep 21, 2023
There’s a lot of noise regarding the causes of brain injuries in soccer. CTE and concussions get confused with each other, while some attribute incorrect causes to these injuries. That’s problematic because players, parents, and coaches may underestimate their risk factors and unwittingly expose themselves to the risk of injury. That’s why we created this post—to identify soccer collision types, the specific brain injuries they lead to, and how to stay safe.
Player-to-Ball Contact (Headers)
Here’s one that needs mythbusting the most—heading the ball gives you concussions. False! Soccer headers are more likely to give you subconcussive brain damage, NOT a concussion. Research has found that frequently heading the ball triggers neuroinflammation (swelling of the brain), alterations of white matter integrity, and the accumulation of tau and NF-L proteins. These hits also injure the axons, which inhibits the flow of electrical signals from the brain to other parts of the body.
Subconcussive hits are not as forceful as concussions, and often produce no symptoms. However, these changes, especially the accumulation of inflammatory brain proteins, can reduce brain connectivity over time and lead to the development of CTE.
Why is it vital for players to understand the difference between subconcussive hits and full-on concussions? Well, just because you head the ball regularly and feel “fine” afterwards, it doesn’t mean that brain damage isn’t happening. It can take decades before symptoms such as memory loss, emotional volatility and worse, appear. In fact, legends such as Jeff Astle and Scott Vermillion tragically declined years after retiring from soccer.
It’s therefore crucial to limit the frequency of ball heading, and to execute it with perfect technique. We also recommend wearing soccer headgear such as our ExoShield headguard to reduce the impact of a speeding ball hitting your skull.
Player-to-Player Contact (Head Collisions)
You know how players fall after jumping for an aerial challenge to head the ball and sometimes bash heads? These collisions lead to soccer concussions more than any other type of contact in soccer. In fact, 40% of soccer concussions happen from players colliding head-to-head.
The forceful impact causes the skull to accelerate in motion, but the brain remains in a state of inertia. The skull comes to a sudden stop, and the combination of shear forces in the skull and inertia jolts your brain. This violent motion leads to immediate injury of the brain, starting with neuronal damage that leads to cell death.
The resulting symptoms, which range from headache and dizziness to loss of consciousness, can follow almost immediately. This is a key difference from subconcussive injuries. And players, parents and coaches need to understand this difference so they can better respond to and lower their risk of soccer concussions.
For example, coaches need to sit a player out right away and get assessed if they’ve bashed heads with another. Doing so can save lives.
Also, reducing the risk of these injuries involves a different approach from subconcussive injuries. Building neck muscle mass and strength is part of it, because a stronger neck can absorb more concussive forces. Also, visual awareness training can help players better spot opponents to avoid aerial collisions.
Player-to-Ground/Goal Post Contact
Collisions with the ground and goalpost happen less frequently, but they can occasionally lead to severe, and life-threatening injuries. Players sometimes land on their head after aerial challenges, and this could lead to soccer concussions although it's very rare.
However, what’s more likely to happen o, is a player accidentally stepping on or kicking another’s head. A foot, knee or chin to the head could potentially fracture the skull since these impacts produce enough kinetic energy to break cranial bones. This happened to former Chelsea goalkeeper, Petr Cech, in 2006, resulting in an emergency surgery to save his life.
Collisions with goal posts, although rare, are another cause of skull fracture and can have tragic results. Goal post collisions usually happen in one of two ways: 1) Players accidentally run or dive into the post, or 2) The net tips over and the metal post hits a player on the head. In either case, a severe impact can fracture the skull. Skull fractures are the most life-threatening brain injury, requiring immediate treatment, especially to prevent brain hemorrhaging.
Preventing skull fractures all boils down to avoiding certain forms of contact. That may involve anchoring goalposts so they don’t fall. Also, developing visual awareness comes into play here as well. Being able to spot another player or goal post in time can help players position themselves away from danger.
How to Reduce the Risk of Brain Injuries in Soccer
We hope that clarifying these injury distinctions helps you see how to approach the prevention of these injuries better. As you can see, they all have different causes. But you can follow to reduce your risk of getting any brain injury. Here’s the recap of how to do so:
- Practice proper header technique
- Develop better visual awareness
- Strengthen the neck
- Wear soccer headgear
- Anchor goal posts
You can read about these strategies in our posts “The Closest You Can Get to Concussion Prevention” and “How to Reduce the Possible Long-Term Risk of Subconcussive Head Hits”. You’ll find a deeper explanation on how to incorporate these strategies into your soccer training and lifestyle. There’s no guaranteed way to make brain injury risk zero, but these methods can make the odds minimal.
Looking to reduce your risk of concussions and sub-concussions? Take a look at our ExoShield soccer headgear and learn how it can decrease your odds of getting a brain injury.