Keele research into heading footballs

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Posted on 08 December 2011

A leading expert from Keele University suggests that recent research claiming that heading footballs can lead to brain damage in the long-term could be misleading.

Dr Andrew Rutherford, from the Keele School of Psychology, has been conducting research into the possible damage caused by heading footballs for several years and suggests that a more likely risk for head injuries is clashes with other players that occur when competing for the ball, rather than from contact with the ball.

Failing to take into account head-to-head or elbow-to-head clashes could skew the results and incorrectly place blame for any brain injuries on heading footballs alone, when in fact contact with other players may play a much bigger role.

Dr Rutherford comments: “There have long been suggestions that heading the ball in football could have detrimental effects on the brain. However, a number of studies in this area ignore the fact that footballers who head the ball frequently also compete to head the ball, and most head trauma observed in football is associated with head-to-head, or elbow-to-head contacts arising from this competition. These injuries are much more likely to be causing damage than heading a football alone.

“What’s more, while the head injury rate in football is significant, it also should be appreciated that it is far less than is observed in other contact sports, especially rugby.”

Dr Rutherford believes that research in this area would benefit greatly if longitudinal studies were carried out, where the same groups of footballers and controls were studied over a number of years, so the actual number of headers and head injuries sustained could be recorded accurately rather than relying on unreliable retrospective estimates obtained from the footballers and controls.

Notes to Editors

Keele has been at the forefront in developing a student centred educational environment and is rated in the top 10 in England in both the recent National Student Survey (NSS) and in the Employment statistics.

The British Psychological Society is the representative body for psychology and psychologists in the UK. BPS is responsible for the development, promotion and application of psychology for the public good.