OHSU Researcher studies possible negative impacts of long-term soccer play

September 07, 1999

Lower Mental Skills Testing Scores for Amateur Soccer Players May Be Linked to Headers and Head Injuries

Portland, Ore. -- Years of rough play on the soccer field may have a negative impact on a player's mental function. That's according to research reported by Dutch Neuropsychologist Erik J.T. Matser and Oregon Health Sciences University researcher Muriel D. Lezak, Ph.D., professor of neurology, School of Medicine. The conclusions are printed in the Sept. 8, issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.

"Headers -- hitting the ball with one's head -- have always been part of the game," Lezak said. "Matser has pointed out that, in addition to these subconcussive blows, many players have also suffered concussions on the playing field."

To learn the possible effects of these injuries, Lezak worked with a research team in the Netherlands to search for an answer. The resulting study showed amateur soccer players scored lower on tests for planning and some aspects of memory than athletes involved in non-contact sports.

A total of 60 athletes were involved in the study. Thirty-three soccer players were tested along with 27 control athletes. The control athletes were in the same physical shape, age group and education level as the soccer players. Both groups of athletes had been involved with their sport for an average of 17 years. However, the control athletes had not received repeated concussive and subconcussive blows to the head.

When compared to the control subjects, researchers found the soccer players exhibited impaired ability on tests relating to planning and memory. On the planning tests, 39 percent of soccer players had scores that indicated impaired performance compared to 13 percent of control athletes. On the memory tests, 27 percent of soccer players had test scores that showed impaired performance compared to 7 percent of control athletes. In addition, researchers found a relationship between the number of concussions incurred by soccer players and lower test scores.

The study is released as soccer enjoys growing popularity across the United States. Worldwide, more than 200 million athletes play the game. Here in the United States, the sport is popular among youngsters and adults alike. This past July, more than 40 million television viewers watched as the U.S. team beat China to win the 1999 Women's World Cup.

While the study's conclusion suggests the impact of heading and other soccer-related head injuries may be linked to decreased mental performance, the research indicates that the impairment appears to be mild.

"One or two bumps on the head are not going to seriously hurt anyone," Lezak said. "However, numerous subconcussive or concussive injuries present a medical and public health concern."

Erik J.T. Matser, M.Sc., was assisted by colleagues at St. Anna Hospital in the Netherlands. Researchers at the Burke Rehabilitation Center in White Plains, N.Y. were also involved in the study.
Editors: Interviews with Dr. Lezak can be arranged by calling Jim Newman in University News and Publications at 503-494-8231.

Oregon Health & Science University

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