Youth: How to Reduce the Possible Long-Term Risk of Subconcussive Head Hits

Jul 12, 2021

There are obvious concussions and then there are more subtle hits - the latter of which may lead to cumulative brain damage. These subtle hits - a.k.a subconcussive head impacts - don’t cause any blackouts, pain or dysfunction even. At least not right away. But mounting research shows that players may feel the effects of such damage over time. 

That naturally gives rise to the question of how soccer players, young ones, in particular, can protect themselves from possible sub concussive injuries. This post will discuss practical ways for players to protect themselves. 

Research on Sub concussive Hits

Researchers across a wide number of studies have observed neurological changes in athletes who sustained the mildest hits. They’ve observed these changes on multiple levels and in various forms. They all point to the reality that small hits can have big consequences, even if they’re not felt for years.

Scientific Findings on Subconcussive Hits

  • Elevated Blood Proteins - Researchers noticed an elevation in NF-1 and tau proteins in soccer players who headed the ball 40 times (or more). These proteins are known to contribute to degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. 
  • Neurotransmitter Changes - Scientists have observed that after a session of heading the ball, there are changes to the brain’s response to GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter. This change appears to impair one’s memory, motor skills and balance. 
  • Altered Activity in Specific Brain Regions - Although a study on rugby players, researchers found abnormal increases and decreases in different brain cortices after players sustained small hits to the head. These changes lead to cognitive, emotional and sensory deficits. 

  • More of these studies are beginning to emerge and they’re all pointing to the same conclusion: repeated small head impacts can have lasting effects. Of course, not everyone who gets a small bump to the head (or several even) will suffer consequences. 

    The brain is a resilient organ that can withstand hard hits thanks to the skull. Also, some people are more likely to sustain brain injuries due to their anatomy or genetics. Nevertheless, the studies make it apparent that all soccer players should take some precautions to protect themselves. 

    How Players Can Protect Themselves Against Any/All Brain Injury 

    Here’s the reality about soccer and sports in general - you can’t prevent any kind of injury including head trauma. What you can do is reduce the risk of sustaining a brain injury and/or reduce the severity of a brain injury’s impact. We’ll consider both approaches. 

    Reducing the Risk of a Brain Injury

    • Improve visual skills - Athletes with better visual awareness can spot opponents more easily, making it easier to avoid bashing heads. This is crucial because player-to-player contact is a frequent cause of brain injury, whether it be minor or serious. 
    • Improve neck strength - Research has pointed out that stronger neck muscles can absorb more shock than weaker ones, which can reduce the force placed upon the skull. This in itself can reduce the likelihood of getting a brain injury. 
    • Lower the frequency of heading the ball - Studies have shown that the more players head the ball, the more likely they are to exhibit brain changes. Therefore, reducing the amount of headers players do in practice may mean less exposure to damaging impacts. 

    Reducing the Severity of a Brain Injury

    • Wear soccer headgear - Concussion headgear for soccer doesn’t prevent brain injuries altogether, but it can reduce the intensity of repeated impacts. For our example, our ExoShield headgear demonstrated the ability to reduce impacts by as much as 84%. 
    • Don’t play through “mild” symptoms - This one is crucial. Brain injuries become increasingly worse if they happen repeatedly, so players need to sit out of a game even if they feel the mildest pain or confusion. Playing through what seems like a “minor” scrape could worsen that injury significantly if the player gets hit again. 

    Small Injuries Can Turn Into Bigger Ones

    Considering the brain weighs just 3 lbs, it can take a lot of damage. But it has limits, and paradoxically, it’s sensitive to even mild impacts. That’s why it’s essential for players to protect themselves by reducing the risk and severity of subconcussive impacts. If small hits to the brain lead to bigger consequences, it’s vital that players take the smallest hits seriously. 

    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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