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Brain scans suggest women sustain more damage heading soccer balls than men

About 30 million women and girls play soccer worldwide, according to FIFA, soccer’s international governing body.Sam Navarro/Miami Herald via AP

Women may be getting hurt more by heading soccer balls than men, according to researchers, who say it might be wise to impose limits on the technique.

The researchers found that regions of damaged brain tissue were five times bigger in female soccer players than in male players.

The results were published online Tuesday in the journal Radiology.

It’s long been noticed that women fare worse from head injuries, but some experts have chalked it up to women being more likely to report symptoms, Dr. Michael L. Lipton, a professor of radiology and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York who led the study, said in a statement.


However, he said, “Based on our study, which measured objective changes in brain tissue rather than self-reported symptoms, women do seem more likely than men to suffer brain trauma from heading soccer balls.”

About 30 million women and girls play soccer worldwide, according to FIFA, soccer’s international governing body.

“The findings add to the growing body of evidence that men and women express distinct biological responses to brain trauma,” lead author Todd G. Rubin, a student at Einstein, said in the statement.

The researchers found the damage using a form of MRI known as diffusion tensor imaging. They tested 49 male and 49 female amateur soccer players. Both groups reported a similar number of headers over the previous year.

But the women had a much larger area of damage visible on the brain scans. The effects were seen over eight regions of the brain, rather than three for men, researchers said.

While the damage was picked up on the scans, the subjects didn’t have any dysfunction, such as altered thinking ability.

Lipton said it would be wise to identify the risks involved so “people can act to prevent further damage and maximize recovery.”


Lipton led another study earlier this year that found soccer players who headed the ball most often during practice and games had worse performance on tests of psychomotor speed, attention, and memory.

One result of such research could be the development of limits on heading the ball, he said, though more research needs to be done to determine what they should be.

“We’d like to get a better handle on how many headers will get players into trouble,” he said in the statement. “But we can’t recommend specific numbers at this point. Fully understanding the risk of heading will take a lot more work.

“What is important about this study is that men and women may need to be looked at differently,” he said.

Martin Finucane can be reached at