by Caroline von Fluegge-Chen
Youth hockey does not look so different than adult hockey, besides the obvious differences in stature among the players. The essential elements of the game are there: The skates’ clatter on the ice; the smoothly sliding puck; and, oh yes, that tousling and hitting they call body checking.
The question: Are 11 and 12-year-olds – still engaged in that complex dance called brain development – ready for body checking?
A new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association does not attempt to answer that question, but it does provide some fodder for discussion. As it turns out, in youth hockey leagues where body checking is allowed, there is a three-fold increase in severe injuries, including mild-to-severe concussions.
The study examined youths in Canadian hockey leagues, but the implications of the study spread well beyond hockey, to other contact sports, says one brain injury expert.
“The simple fact is, the more risky the behavior, the more you increase the chance of concussion,” said David Hovda, director of the UCLA Brain Injury Research Center, who was not involved with the study. “The brain is not like a muscle so that when you pull it, it swells up and (the injury) goes away. When the brain gets hurt, it’s a very bad thing. The problem is you can’t see it.”
At issue when it comes to children, those invisible injuries – even when they are mild – may have dangerous implications for their still-developing brains. Last year, two studies published by the American Psychological Association found that children who sustained severe brain injuries had more problems academically, with learning and memory, and with behavior over the long term.
“Let’s say a child is playing hockey and had repeated head injuries,” said Hovda. “That kid grows up and becomes a first class car repairman, but maybe he was supposed to be a first class doctor. The problem is, we don’t know how much those repeated blows to the head could have compromised that child’s brain to reach its full capacity.”
Hovda calls concussion an epidemic in the United States – it results in 435,000 emergency department visits per year among children, according to the National Center for Brain Injury and Control – but confesses that he, like many, is a sports fan.
“We don’t necessarily need to change the nature of sports,” said Hovda. “But since we don’t know how devastating this can be for a child, it’s better to restrict activities in sports where children may be exposed to repeat concussions.”
Where many brain injury experts seem to agree is that children should be protected from concussions – by adults. That includes having experienced trainers and medical staff on hand at all games and coercing children, in situations where there is even a suggestion of a concussion (even if the child doth protest), to stay on the sidelines to heal.
The question that lingers is, is all of that enough? Is there some credence to the argument that there should be an age limit on body checking (or tackling, or any major contact in youth sports)? These are questions that may take years – even decades – to sort out.