Junior hockey concussions an 'epidemic'

Quebec Remparts forward Mikael Tam suffered head trauma after Rouyn-Noranda Huskies forward Patrice...

Quebec Remparts forward Mikael Tam suffered head trauma after Rouyn-Noranda Huskies forward Patrice Cormier hit him with an elbow earlier this year. (QMI Agency)

JONATHAN SHER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:59 PM ET

Concussions in junior hockey are epidemic, says a London doctor who also claims there are concerted efforts to suppress the problem’s scope.

For half a season last year, Dr. Paul Echlin led a team of doctors who monitored players on two unidentified junior teams a couple of rungs below the Ontario Hockey League, producing a study published this month in a medical journal.

The doctors observed games from high vantage points and immediately tested players who left the ice with possible concussions.

In just 52 games, 17 of 67 players suffered concussions, four of them twice. The problem was most acute among forwards: 12 suffered concussions.

“It’s at epidemic proportions,” Echlin said.

The prevalence was seven times higher than had been found in previous studies — a disparity Echlin attributes to his use of doctors to assess the injuries and to efforts by those in organized hockey to not acknowledge a concussion that could sideline a player.

“These athletes are suffering in silence,” he said.

There’s a culture in organized hockey that puts pressure on players to play through pain and not admit they’re injured, he said.

Officials with the Ontario Hockey Association couldn’t immediately be reached Sunday night for comment.

Echlin said that pressure led one of the two teams in the study to stop allowing the study’s doctors to examine players during games — something that was critical to the study and had been agreed to by the teams before the season.

“The reluctance to report concussion symptoms and to follow such protocols likely results from certain cultural factors such as athletes asserting their masculinity by playing through the discomfort of an injury, and the belief that winning is more important than the athlete’s long-term health,” Echlin wrote in the study published in Neurosurgical Focus, a peer-reviewed publication of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons.

The results didn’t surprise ex-NHLer Eric Lindros, whose career and that of his brother Brett were cut short by concussions.

“It’s amazing a team turned (Echlin) down halfway through his study. They didn’t want him to continue on — which is fundamentally wrong.” Eric Lindros said.

Echlin is no stranger to sports injuries — he’s worked as a team doctor in hockey for the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers and in football.

Those in both sports underestimate the prevalence and harm of concussions, he said.

“There should not be fear of having players evaluated by specialists in order to protect them,” he said. “Having an evaluation is much more important than the next period or the next practice or the next game.”

Echlin hopes to change the culture of hockey, starting from the grassroots.

He’s planning a second study that would track concussions among men’s and women’s teams across Canada — he hopes to do it during the 2011-12 season.

During a concussion, the brain is subjected to trauma and a player can suffer from confusion, memory loss and sometimes loss of consciousness. Symptoms include headache, dizziness, lack of co-ordination or weakness and amnesia about events just before the blow.

Concussions can have chronic effects, too, damaging memory, judgment, social conduct, reflexes, speech, balance and co-ordination.

In January 2009, Echlin led a London conference on head injuries in hockey.

Figures published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal say 10% to 12% of male and female hockey players will sustain a head injury.

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The study

Two Tier-4 junior teams (Jr. C and D levels) agreed to be tracked during part of the 2009-10 season.

Players were tested for cognitive function before the season.

Each game was watched in person by a doctor and up to three others from a pool that included kinesiologists, hockey coaches, hockey executives, a former junior player and health-care providers.

Players who suffered a suspected concussion were evaluated by the doctor during the game.

In 52 observed games, 17 players suffered concussions, four of them twice or more often.

Head shots led to 69% of the concussions; intentional hits to the head or body checks were responsible for 80%

jonathan.sher@sunmedia.ca

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