Study focuses on head injuries

Mar 21, 2002, vol. 23, no. 6
By Marianne Meadahl

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While young hockey players competing in the recent B.C. winter games in Williams Lake set their sights on winning a medal, a team of SFU student researchers was also hard at work focusing on the play.

The students, who observed all 28 matches played during the games held in February, are involved in a study on the impact of mild head injuries on young hockey players.

Entitled Mild head injury in youth hockey: There really is cause for concern, the study is being led by SFU kinesiologist David Goodman and is part of a new Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR) initiative to fund community-based research.

A year into the four-year, $1.35 million study, the group of kinesiology student observers have become regulars at several local rinks. Their job is to observe the play and record any event, whether intentional or accidental, that could potentially result in a head injury.

In addition to observing the eight under-16 years of age male teams and eight under-18 female teams who competed at the winter games, they've compiled more than 600 incident sheets after sitting in on all the home games played in the Lower Mainland's Pacific International Junior B hockey league.

“We've undertaken concussion histories on players and have done testing on those players who have suffered concussions. Now we're reading what's happening on the ice that could potentially lead to such an injury,” says Candice Alkins, who is coordinating the data collection and joins students as a game observer.

Alkins is also the provincial safety coordinator for the B.C. Amateur Hockey Association, which serves as the community research partner. “We're recording those incidents where the force is significant enough to impede the movement of the player and, via various mechanisms, results in contact to the head.”

Observers are not only concerned with plays involving intentional hits and checks from other players. “We're looking at things like players running into goal posts, being hit on the head with sticks or other objects, or a collision between players on open ice. These all have the potential for head injuries.”

The observations are recorded on incident sheets, detailing where, when and how the incident occurred, as well as other pertinent information, such as whether a penalty was called and player outcome.

“This will tell us what kind of incidents we need to be concerned about and will help us develop strategies for prevention,” says Alkins. Observers are also compiling videotape of incidents for review, to carry out reliability tests on data and to produce material for community outreach. Last fall, two students worked with local hockey organizations in the North Central Kootenay districts to monitor play and promote the study's safety message further afield.

Fourth-year students Aaron Miller and Nori Bradley, based in Cranbrook and Quesnel, spent two months giving talks to the district hockey associations, assisting with local hockey events and seeking out community volunteers to help with data collection.

While observations on ice continue, graduate student Brent Gall is looking at the effects of fatigue on players recovering from head injury.

Current return-to-play guidelines stipulate that players must be symptom
free at both rest and exercise before returning to the game. Alkins says once players are symptom free they engage in controlled exercise, which simulates that of a hockey game, and the effects of that exercise are monitored and evaluated.

“After we look at all of the data we're collecting we'll be able to determine where changes need to be made, whether it's in the rules of the game, how we teach and inform players and parents, or in attitudes about how the game is played,” says Alkins. “It will probably mean addressing a little of all of that.”

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