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Is Soccer Heading Safe for Kids?

Author: CHKD Sports Medicine, Dr. David Smith
Published Date: Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Dr. David Smith, CHKD Sports Medicine, Primary Care, answers a very important question from a young athlete in San Diego about head injuries.

Q: Is soccer heading safe for children? If not, at what age would you recommend athletes start heading the ball? Have you come across any severe injuries caused by heading? Why are children more at risk for head injuries than adults?

– Grace, eighth-grader in San Diego, California

A: Thanks so much for reaching out! The simple answer to your first question: We don’t know for sure if there is any harm from heading a soccer ball. If you asked any of us doctors 10–15 years ago, the answer would be, yes, heading is safe. Recently, I think it’s more accurate to say we’re not sure. There has been a lot of attention on head injuries and concussions in the last 10 years or so, and more and more researchers are becoming increasingly concerned about what we call sub-concussive blows – meaning, head injuries that don’t cause any symptoms of concussion but might have a negative effect on the brain that we can’t yet measure. Lots of research needs to be done before we can give people better answers.

We do sometimes have patients who sustain concussions just from heading a soccer ball, although I would say it’s less common than a soccer player getting a concussion from hitting their head on the ground, colliding heads with another player or getting kicked in the head.

Some think children may be at a higher risk for concussions than adults because their heads are bigger than their bodies, relative to adults, and they have fewer muscles in their neck to support their head. Some researchers have dubbed this the “bobble-head effect.” Basically, because children have bigger, heavier heads with less support, their brains may be subjected to more force in collisions.

There are also some people who think kids may have more risk of concussions because their brains are still developing. Our brains continue to develop and mature even into our early 20s. But like many of these topics, this is an area that we don’t fully understand yet, but it’s being researched.

About CHKD Sports Medicine

CHKD's sports medicine program offers the most comprehensive care for your young athlete. From diagnosis and treatment to customized rehabilitation plans, we specialize in physical therapy and injury prevention programs for active children and teens. Our team is composed of pediatric orthopedic surgeons, sports medicine specialists, physician assistants, certified athletic trainers and pediatric sports medicine physical therapists.