Soccer season is in full swing, and as players gain more skill, opportunities to hit the ball with their head become more frequent.
It's known that too much heading is not good – but a new study out of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx finds that women's brains are actually more vulnerable to these minor repeated hits than men. Health reporter Erin Billups filed this report.
Jessica Monge played soccer from middle school all the way through college, heading the ball since she was 10.
"It has to be right here on the forehead, mostly in the center. Because if you hit up here, you get dizzy and you see lights and stuff. It happened to me quite a few times when I was younger," she said.
Frequently heading a soccer ball is a common cause of concussion symptoms.
A 2013 study by Albert Einstein College of Medicine Radiologist and Psychiatrist Michael Lipton found that poor cognitive function in soccer players likely stems from heading, rather than impacts from collisions.
"So the human brain is essentially a massive array of network computers, and if that network is disrupted, that can lead to problems with brain functions. As people head the ball more, there seems to be a pathologic change in the brain's white matter in this networking," said Lipton.
Monge was one of 49 female and 49 male soccer players to take part in Lipton's latest study, where he found that women experienced damage to eight regions of white matter in the brain from heading, compared to only three regions in men.
"Three areas in men, eight areas in women, but when we total up the volume of brain tissue that was abnormal, it was a factor of five greater in women than in men, and that's a pretty dramatic difference," Lipton said.
Lipton's study has yet to explore why, but previous research theorizes that differences in neck muscle strength, genetics and potentially hormonal fluctuation among women make them more vulnerable to injury.
Monge has not experienced any symptoms of head injury. She's still playing soccer and preparing to apply for law school. She hopes the study's findings will serve to better protect girls and women moving forward.
"Now, 10-year-olds are not allowed to head the ball. 11- to 13-year-olds are restricted in heading the ball. If we implement those at an early age, we'll be fine for the future," Monge said.
Dr. Lipton says it may even be helpful to limit heading among professional players. But first, they need to figure out just how much heading is too much, because the body can tolerate some.