New research suggests playing soccer may be riskier for female players

Changes to brain tissue due to “heading” a soccer ball are more damaging for female athletes than male counterparts, according to a new study published in Radiology.

The authors used diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) to assess changes in the brains of 98 amateur soccer players with an average age of approximately 26 years old. Half the volunteers were male. All participants were experienced soccer players.

“In general, men do a lot more heading than women, but we wanted to specifically examine if men and women fare similarly or differently with a similar amount of exposure to repeated impacts to the head,” lead author Michael L. Lipton, MD, PhD, professor of radiology at the Gruss Magnetic Resonance Research Center at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, said in a prepared statement.

The authors studied fractional anisotropy (FA) in the players’ brains. Healthy white matter has “fairly uniform” water movement, resulting in high FA values. When water movement is less predictable, it causes the FA values to drop. While both men and women had lower FA values overall due to repeatedly heading soccer balls while playing the sport, FA levels were lower in women and “across a much larger volume of brain tissue.”

“In both groups, this effect we see in the brain's white matter increased with greater amounts of heading,” Lipton said in the same statement. “But women exhibit about five times as much microstructural abnormality as men when they have similar amounts of heading exposure.”

Lipton also noted that more research is still needed to confirm these findings and help researchers determine if male and female soccer players need to play by a different set of rules or regulations.

“We don't have enough information yet to establish guidelines to protect the players,” he said. “But by understanding these relationships—how different people have different levels of sensitivity to heading—we can get to the point of determining the need for gender-specific recommendations for safer soccer play.”

Prior Radiology Business coverage of the effect heading can have on soccer players can be read here.