Boys' brain injury risk grew after bodychecks OK'd

Minor league hockey players were 10 times as likely to suffer a brain injury since bodychecking was first allowed for nine and 10-year-olds, study finds.
Local youth enjoy the opening day of an NHL-sized hockey rink in Fort Chipewyan, Alta. in 2010. More than half of hockey-related injuries reported in a new study of minor league hockey players were the result of bodychecking. ((Tyran Ault/Canadian Press))

Minor league hockey players were 10 times as likely to suffer a brain injury since bodychecking was first allowed for nine and 10-year-olds, a Canadian study finds.

Dr. Michael Cusimano of St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto and his co-authors reviewed records of more than 8,500 boys aged six to 17 who went to one of five hospital emergency departments in Ontario for hockey-related injuries from 1994 to 2004.

More than half of the hockey-related injuries reported, 4,460 or 52 per cent, were the result of bodychecking, the researchers said in Tuesday's issue of the journal Open Medicine.

The odds of visiting an emergency department due to a brain injury from bodychecking also increased significantly among all minor hockey players after Hockey Canada relaxed bodychecking rules in the 1998/1999 season, the team said.

At that time, body contact was first allowed among nine- and 10 year-olds in the Atom division.

After the rule change, the odds of a bodychecking-related injury was 2.20 times higher in the Atom division. 

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The risk of a head or neck injury, including concussions, increased across all minor hockey divisions, the researchers said.

"Our work confirmed the fact that body checking is the most common cause of injury in hockey," Cusimano said in a release.

"While proponents argue lowering the age for bodychecking helps players learn how to properly bodycheck and reduces injuries at older ages, our study clearly showed the opposite — the risk of all injuries and especially, brain injuries, increases with exposure to bodychecking."

Cusimano is a volunteer vice-president of the Think First Foundation of Canada, a non-profit organization dedicated to the prevention of brain and spinal cord injury. He has long called for the National Hockey League to take more leadership in reducing the incidence of brain injuries.

The study's authors concluded the findings "add to the growing evidence that bodychecking holds greater risk than benefit for youth and support widespread calls to ban this practice."

USA Hockey, the governing body for amateur hockey in the United States, is to vote on a rule  change in June to ban bodychecking until children turn 13 — a move that would raise the age by two years.