5 Brain Injury Terms in Soccer & What They Mean

Nov 8, 2021

When it comes to brain injuries, the motto “if what walks, looks or quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck”, isn’t 100% accurate. In soccer (or any sport really), brain injuries can differ from player to player, even when the symptoms involved look-alike. 

Not knowing the differences between different brain injuries can lead to tragic consequences, especially if you delay treatment for an injury that seems mild but is worse than it looks. This post will define five common brain injuries and explain how they differ from each other. 

Sub-Concussive Injury

The mildest (yet no less serious) of brain injuries on this list, subconcussive impacts are mild blows, bumps or jolts to the head that don’t cause symptoms. In soccer, two players may lightly nudge heads during an aerial challenge and walk away with no issues. 

The jury is still out on whether these hits cause damage. Although a subconcussive impact may not cause any noticeable symptoms, research suggests that frequent hits to the head can cause brain alterations. 

For example, a study conducted at the University of British Columbia found that soccer players who head the ball 40 times or more had elevated levels of blood proteins found in people who have brain degeneration. Ultimately, subconcussive injuries carry far fewer risks than full-blown concussions do. 


A concussion is a blow, bump or jolt to the head (or body) that causes the brain or head to move back and forth rapidly. This rapid movement often triggers a cascade of structural and chemical changes within the brain that leads to damage and symptoms (although not always). 

Concussions can produce a wide range of symptoms including physical ones (ie. headaches, dizziness), cognitive (ie. difficulty concentrating, memory loss), and even emotional (ie. depression, irritability). In severe cases, they can lead to loss of consciousness and life-threatening brain damage. 

Soccer players must sit out and seek immediate medical screening if they experience any symptoms after a head impact. If diagnosed with a concussion, they must follow a concussion recovery protocol to give the brain time to heal. Failure to do so can lead to the extremely rare but often fatal second impact syndrome due to damage to the brain. 

Skull Fractures

A skull fracture is a break in one or more of the eight bones of the skull. The most common cause of a skull fracture is blunt force trauma and in soccer, that may come from accidentally getting stepped on or colliding with a goalpost. 

Skull fractures are dangerous and can have serious symptoms ranging from bleeding (at the site of injury), severe headache, loss of balance, and much more. Mild skull fractures generally heal on their own and have few if any long-term effects. Moderate and severe injuries to brain tissue can lead to permanent cognitive impairment or a persistent vegetative state. It is important to get CT scans when available.

It’s important to note that they’re not the same as concussions, although they may occur together. A skull fracture involves a break in cranial bones; a concussion is simply a rapid movement of the brain - they’re two different injuries altogether. 

With that said, a skull fracture isn’t like a concussion where you can sit out. You MUST treat a skull fracture as a medical emergency since bleeding in the brain (cerebral hemorrhage) or swelling (contusions). These effects can be life-threatening. 

Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)

Another term that people use incorrectly is traumatic brain injury (TBI). TBI is an all-encompassing term - it doesn’t automatically mean concussion. All concussions are considered traumatic brain injuries, but not all traumatic brain injuries are considered to be concussions. 

There are different types of TBIs: closed brain injuries and penetrating brain injuries. Closed brain injuries happen when the brain sustains an injury without a break in the skull - concussions fall in this category. Penetrating brain injuries are the opposite - they’re brain injuries that occur as a result of a break in the skull such as what’s seen in skull fractures. 

To sum it all up, whether you’ve had a concussion, a skull fracture, or some other major hit to the head, all of these could be considered traumatic brain injuries. 

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) 

The least understood “brain injury” on this list is chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). It’s more of an illness than it is an injury, an illness that occurs after many years of accumulating minor yet damaging injuries. It’s difficult to diagnose and difficult to treat, and unfortunately, it’s progressive and often leads to an early death. 

The symptoms and progression of the disease resemble Alzheimer’s disease and often strike athletes who get repeated blows to the head. It’s mostly seen in boxers, MMA fighters, American football players, and more recently, it’s been confirmed as a cause of illness (and death) in soccer players. 

There are two forms of CTE. The first one strikes in young adulthood (20s and 30s) and leads to aggressive behaviour. The second form appears in older adulthood (60s and beyond) and leads to dementia.

It is a devastating illness but it is very rare. Protecting the head can reduce the risk of sustaining multiple brain injuries and by extension, reduce the risk of developing CTE. 

The Many Faces of Brain Injuries

The term “brain injury” encompasses a wide range of events, not just concussions. Knowing the differences between them can save a life. Of course, soccer players, parents, and coaches can do much to reduce the risk of brain injuries. 

Wearing soccer protective gear, namely, soccer concussion headgear, can reduce the impact of hard hits to the head. It may not prevent a brain injury 100%, but it can make impact forces far less damaging. 

It’s also important for coaches to teach players how to head the ball more effectively and to learn better situational awareness. Reducing the risk of brain injury takes a holistic effort, but that effort can protect the health of players both in the short and long run. 

Are you looking for concussion headgear to reduce the risk of brain injury? Take a look at our ExoShield headguard and learn how it can help.

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