Can Playing Football Cause Brain Damage?

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Football is a physical sport in which players can often be seen to collide with one another and taking falls at speed. There is an element of unpredictability in sport which can be seen through players suffering injuries of varying types. Some injuries are muscular and some can include the breaking of bones. More serious though is the impact to the brain.

Recent research carried out by the University College London and Cardiff University examined the brains of five people who had been professional footballers. The players within the study had played football for an average of 26 years and all six went on to develop dementia in their 60s. Following examination, scientists found signs of brain injury in four cases. The particular condition identified was known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).  

CTE is a condition often connected to various psychological and mental conditions, including memory loss, depression and dementia. In recently reported new, Prof Huw Morris, of University College London, recently told the BBC: "When we examined their brains at autopsy we saw the sorts of changes that are seen in ex-boxers, the changes that are often associated with repeated brain injury which are known as CTE.” So really for the first time in a series of players we have shown that there is evidence that head injury has occurred earlier in their life which presumably has some impact on them developing dementia."

The issue is of brain injury and playing football is very much a live and developing issue. The Football Association, who are the governing body for football in England, have set up an independent head injury panel to investigate incidents. There have been submissions that for the Professional Footballers’ Association to pay out for independent research into whether repeatedly heading a football can affect the brain. This pressure may now increase following a Harvard research project involving 12 German footballers. The research project saw the brains of the German right-handed players compared with eight elite swimmers, whose sport was selected because of the low exposure to repetitive brain trauma.

A key finding of research was that, from those footballers that were assessed a noticeable change was noted in their frontal, temporal and occipital lobes, when compared to the swimmers. The affected parts of the brain are those which are known to be responsible for attention, visual processing, higher order thinking and memory.

The Football Association has recently dismissed research findings linking football to brain injury on the basis that they consider the research to inconclusive and regarded football as not belonging to the category of those sports where there is a risk of brain injury. This comment would suggest that the FA are placing the burden of proof on those seeking to establish a link to present undeniable proof beyond reasonable doubt before they are willing to concede this issue.

The FA’s independent head injury recognises that there is a real issue to be considered. However, there is a further issue of the potential effect of a link being established with playing professional football and brain damage. If in fact there is a link, the questions to be considered are not for those in the present or future but must also be asked for those in the past.

The sport of football in its current form cannot be played without use of the head. Measures and assessments can be put in place in terms of treating injured players. However, as long as the use of the head to score goals and play the game is allowed the risk remains.

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