In recent years, football players at all levels have become increasingly concerned about chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, as it has become increasingly clear that repeated head injuries lead to the condition. In fact, a recent study found that in a study of deceased soccer players, over 99% had CTE. But why are soccer players at such risk for this type of brain damage, especially since they have to wear a helmet to protect their head? The answer is not entirely clear, but there are some clues.
What is CTE?
Before we delve into the causes of CTE in soccer players, let’s take a look at what CTE is. CTE is the term for a degenerative brain disease that manifests itself in people who have suffered repeated head injuries. It is not yet fully understood how repetitive head trauma changes the brain, but it is characterized by symptoms such as cognitive impairment (difficulty thinking), memory loss, executive functioning problems (planning, organizing, performing tasks), impulsive behavior, aggression, depression, emotional instability and motor control problems.
These symptoms do not appear immediately after a head injury, but rather show up after years of repeated head injuries or after an older person suffers a secondary impact to their head later in life. CTE cannot be formally diagnosed while a person is alive because it requires a manual examination of the brain. There is also no known cure for CTE.
CTE causes in soccer players
The short answer is that CTE in soccer players is caused by repeated blows to the head. All player positions are at risk of receiving hits to the head, either by hitting each other or hitting the ground. Whiplash and impact injuries are the leading causes of concussion in the National Football League, and recurrent concussion is a precursor to CTE. Even seemingly minor blows to the head can cause mild concussions that worsen with each additional blow.
Why helmets don’t work
Soccer is a violent sport, requiring players to wear helmets that meet or exceed NOCSAE standards set by the Safety Equipment Institute (SEI), the body responsible for setting standards for safety equipment in sports. Unfortunately, even a helmet that meets these standards will not prevent concussion.
Helmets protect players from skull fractures and other external body damage. However, because the brain moves independently inside the skull, there is no safety equipment to prevent this movement in the event of a violent impact. The brain is not designed to move violently back and forth in the skull like it does in whiplash and impact injuries. Furthermore, the resulting brain trauma never fully heals and is particularly resistant to recovery if another head injury occurs in the meantime.
The human brain is an organ that scientists don’t fully understand, but they do know that repeated head injuries, even to soccer players who wear helmets, alter how the brain functions. Research efforts are currently focused on reducing a soccer player’s likelihood of CTE, but for now it’s almost taken for granted that soccer players damage their brains with every collision on the field.
Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire