Heads Up! Every year, 2.5 million youth suffer a concussion. About a third will experience long-term health challenges including headaches, trouble concentrating, anxiety and depression.

Experts at the Minds Matter Concussion Program of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia study concussion and its effects on youth, with funding support from the U.S. government and generous philanthropic partners, including the Toyota Way Forward Fund. There have been several major changes in youth sports, including eliminating “heading” in soccer (a technique where players use their heads to direct the ball) for kids under age 11 and limiting the practice for young teens. These changes — endorsed by the U.S. Soccer Federation — went into effect in 2015.  

Now CHOP is exploring whether regulations go far enough to protect youth athletes from concussions and other head injuries. CHOP recently conducted a comprehensive “real-time” study of heading among experienced soccer players, aged 13 to 18.  

Led by Kristy Arbogast, PhD, research director of the Minds Matter Concussion Program, and Colin Huber, PhD, former research fellow with CHOP’s Center for Injury Research and Prevention, the study observed teen athletes as they performed three soccer-related tasks:

  • heading the ball back in the same direction from which it came
  • heading the ball, but directing it to the right
  • kicking the ball (as a control group)

Teen players were limited to 10 soccer headers in a single session. Each youth wore a special instrumented mouthguard that measured the force of the ball hitting their head, and underwent comprehensive neurophysiological exams before, immediately following and 24 hours after practice. Researchers looked for changes in balance, pupil response, eye tracking and overall health among the athletes. Overall, the players that headed the ball showed no differences in these measures compared to the kicking group.

“Our tests showed that adolescent players can use their head in soccer, but they need to be properly trained to do it safely, and use the move efficiently and sparingly,” Arbogast says.  

CHOP plans to expand its research to address questions like: Are there differences in injury rates and recovery time between boys and girls related to headers? What changes may be needed to make soccer safer for all?

“We want to educate coaches, parents and young athletes to better recognize head injuries, get injured kids off the field faster, and give them the tools they need to fully recover.”

To learn about how you can support the Minds Matter Concussion Program, please contact Nick Masters at mastersn@chop.edu.