Two concussion experts in the United Kingdom are calling on governments to take action against the tide of concussions resulting from children playing team sports like hockey and rugby. The researchers say concussions are especially serious during developmental years and that rule changes to enforce no-contact play would reduce the risk of injury.
Research continues into the health consequences of brain injury and concussion, providing mounting evidence that far from being a temporary “bell-ringing,” their effects can linger and potentially create permanent changes to brain functioning.
“There’s not really structural damage to the brain,” says Dr. Michael Ellis, neurosurgeon with the Pan Am Clinic in Winnipeg, recently at a lecture in Thompson, Manitoba. “The brain just doesn’t work properly for a short period of time so often times, when adults have concussions, they have a bunch of symptoms fairly rapidly and then they just kind of go away over time.”
Yet, the long-term effects have been well documented. Head injury brings with it an increased risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease later in life, along with higher risk for other neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s. Having a history of concussion is linked to mood and social behaviour changes as well, including violent behaviour and injury in adolescents.
For children and teens, especially, the risks are great enough that schools and school boards need to make changes to sports programs and get rid of rules that allow for collisions. That’s the conclusion from Allyson M. Pollock, professor of public health and Graham Kirkwood, senior research associate, both from the Institute of Health and Society at Newcastle University in the UK.
In a new article written for the British Journal of Medicine, Pollock and Kirkwood point to studies which look at youth injury rates in sports like rugby, football and hockey, the top three for concussion rates among children, according to a recent evidence review.
Concerning rugby, a pair of New Zealand studies found that for all age groups of children, playing rugby regularly is 460 to 530 times more dangerous than cycling regularly and that children even under the age of nine who played rugby were being exposed to head impacts of a similar magnitude as American high school and college football players.
“The few studies which compare youth injury rates between sports show higher rates of injury for collision sports than for non-collision contact sports,” say Pollock and Kirkwood, who single out Hockey Canada’s decision to disallow body-checking at the minor hockey Pee-wee level (under 13) as an example of rule changes that can have a positive effect, highlighting that the 2013 change was recently found to have produced a significant reduction in concussion risk for that age group.
“It is well recognized that children are vulnerable and require specific measures to control the unique risks associated with this group,” say Pollock and Kirkwood.
Earlier this year, a University of Calgary study found that the Pee-wee rule change resulted in a 50 per cent reduction in injury rate and a 64 per cent reduction in concussion rate for 11 and 12 year-old hockey players.