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Heads: You Lose?

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If it's not bad enough that soccer players need to worry about the potential of Achilles and MCL/ACL tears, broken metatarsals, and the risk of concussion, European medical experts have determined that the risks of playing the sport now includes impotence.

Heading for disaster? Some footballers might just want to reconsider their game.
Heading for disaster? Some footballers might just want to reconsider their game.
USA TODAY Sports

According to a story published last week in 20 Minuten, a daily paper published in Zurich, Switzerland, heading the ball can cause brain damage, which can ultimately result in a diminished libido, shrunken testes, and erectile dysfunction.

The story cites the case of an unnamed player in the German Bundesliga who sought treatment for these same symptoms. Experts at the Max Planck Institute in Munich, Germany were able to determine that repeated heading had damaged the player's pituitary gland to such an extent that his body's ability to produce the sex hormones LH and testosterone were significantly diminished. As the damage is irreversible, the only avenue of treatment is to administer testosterone for the rest of the patient's lifetime.

Medical experts quoted in the article state that the number of balls headed is less significant a factor than the intensity of the impacts suffered over time, and that a single concussion is not sufficient to cause the kind of damage that they witnessed in the case at hand.

The full article (German) is available here. The English translation follows below:

Playing Football Can Cause Impotence

Urologists are warning that too many headers can lead to impotence. That's what's happened to a German professional footballer. But amateurs, too, are at risk.

Those who play football on a regular basis are risking impotence. The example of pro player in the German Bundesliga bears this out. He suffered from a low libido and impotence. Moreover, his testicles had shrunk. The 27-year-old athlete contacted a clinic about the issues he was suffering from.

It was determined that the patient had deficient levels of the sex hormones LH and testosterone. The former is produced by the pituitary gland in the brain, and triggers the production of testosterone in the testes. This, in turn, is responsible for the male sex drive and potency. Doctors at the Max Planck Institute in Munich eventually discovered the cause of his slump: repeated headers had damaged the pro player's pituitary to such a degree that the aforementioned hormones were no longer being produced in sufficient levels.

Amateurs Also at Risk

According to the Medical Tribune, the patient in question has played football since he was seven. Throughout his professional career, he had headed up to 500 balls per week. The resulting impacts to the skull created microscopic injuries to the pituitary gland. "Multiple minor skull-brain trauma can, in fact, lead to impaired cerebral function, which can also affect the pituitary, and thus testicular function," confirmed Michael von Wolff, Head of Gynecological Endocrinology and Reproductive Medicine at Bern University Hospital.

But it's not just professional players who put themselves at risk of impotency when they set foot on the pitch. "It's less a matter of the number of headers than it is of the intensity of the impacts, says Christoph Kraft, a specialist in urology, based in Olten, Switzerland. Amateur players can also suffer such injuries, and thus suffer erectile dysfunction. But a one-off concussion would not enough to cause such symptoms. "It's caused by repeated microscopic brain trauma."

It's not known how many footballers are affected by sports-related impotence. "Defining the risk in terms of numbers is completely impossible, and scientifically unachievable," says Wolff. But it's clear that the damage is irreversible. "A patient with such injuries has to be given testosterone for the rest of their life," says Kraft. It's definitely a rare case. "I've never had to deal with such a case." But Kraft can imagine another sport that could affect potency: boxing. "Here, too, the athletes have to deal with hard impacts to the skull."