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Is Hockey Worse Than Football For Your Brain?

Hockey is an intense, fast paced and dangerous sport. It has the contact level of football but its magnified as players are skating on ice in excess of 20 mph. Hockey has a long history of players that embrace the “tough guy” mentality playing through any and every injury. And despite several years of intensive research, national media coverage and discussion about the dangers of concussions, the idea of playing through head injuries is so deeply rooted in hockey culture that two university teams kept concussed players on the ice even though they were taking part in a major concussion study.

What Research Says

The study, which was published in a series of articles in the journal Neurosurgical Focus, was conducted during the 2011-12 hockey season by researchers from the University of Western Ontario, the University of Montreal, Harvard and other institutions.

The study is believed to be among the most comprehensive analyses of concussions in hockey, which has a rate of head trauma approaching that of football. Researchers followed two Canadian university teams — a men’s team and a women’s team — and scanned every player’s brain before and after the season. Players who sustained head injuries also received scans at three intervals after the injuries, with researchers using advanced magnetic resonance imaging techniques.

The teams were not named in the study, in which an independent specialist physician was present at each game and was empowered to pull any player off the ice for examination if a potential concussion was observed.

The men’s team, with 25 players and an average age of 22, played a 28-game regular season and a 3-game postseason. The women’s team, with 20 players and an average age of 20, played 24 regular-season games and no playoff games. Over the course of the season, there were five observed or self-reported concussions on the men’s team and six on the women’s team.

What They Found

Researchers noted several instances of coaches, trainers and players avoiding examinations, ignoring medical advice or otherwise obstructing the study, even though the players had signed consent forms to participate and university ethics officials had given institutional consent.

“Unless something is broken, I want them out playing,” one coach said, according to the study.
In one incident, a neurologist observing the men’s team pulled a defenseman during the first period of a game after the player took two hits and was skating slowly. During the intermission the player reported dizziness and was advised to sit out, but the coach suggested he play the second period and “skate it off.” The defenseman stumbled through the rest of the game. In another episode, a physician observer assessed a minor concussion in a female player and recommended that she miss the next night’s game. Even though the coach’s own playing career had ended because of concussions, she overrode the medical advice and inserted the player the next evening.

“Interesting gap between theory and practice,” one of the study’s physicians said in the report. “The athlete’s and coach’s decision to return to play the next day despite incurring a minor concussion reflects what occurs thousands of times every day.”

After this second instance of a coach overriding medical advice following a concussion diagnosis, the researchers talked to the coaches about the serious long-term threat their actions posed to their players’ health. By the end of the study, the teams’ cooperation improved markedly.

Concussion Rates 7x Higher Than Reported

They found concussion rates seven times higher than previously reported. In this most recent study, male players sustained concussions at three times the rate reported in most previous studies, and female players at five times the rate reported in most studies. The women also sustained concussions almost twice as frequently as the men, despite rules in women’s hockey designed to curb body checking.

The brain scans taken after the season also showed substantive metabolic changes among the majority of players, including those who were not diagnosed with concussions. Researchers said the changes in the brains might be evidence of trauma caused by sub-concussive blows.

We Can Help

If you are concerned about persistent symptoms of head trauma, a call to our Care Center can answer your questions and provide you with valuable information that can lead you to a better brain and a better life. Find out how. Call 888-288-9834 or schedule a visit today.

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