Why There's Nothing "Tough" About Ice Hockey Concussions

R. Robert Franks, DO, FAOASM October 31st, 2014

The brain is a delicate organ. The average female skull is only 7.1 millimeters thick, while an average male skull is a scant 6.5 millimeters thick. Yet somehow, we’re supposed to get ourselves and our kids through life without damaging the precious content of the cranium.

This task is made substantially more difficult when our children become involved in a sport that promotes actively bashing opponents into plexiglass windows and occasionally removing the gloves for some good old fashioned fist to face action. Ice hockey is not a sport for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. It would seem it is a sport for the hard of head, but that hasn’t prevented boy’s ice hockey from having the second highest rate of concussions in all of high school athletics (second to football).
Cultural Paradox
Eliminating ice hockey concussions is going to be an uphill battle. Despite growing concussion-conscious rhetoric, hockey maintains its entrenched place in our culture as a hard-nosed, tough-minded game. While sports like baseball and basketball impose harsh fines and suspensions on players who verbally or physically confront one another, bare-knuckle fighting is a beloved hockey tradition. To suggest we ban fighting in hockey games would be as inflammatory a suggestion to hockey diehards as the suggestion of banning To Kill a Mockingbird would be to literature enthusiasts.
The NHL has made steps toward cutting down on concussions, but thus far they have proved ineffective. Concussions in the NHL have actually increased since a rule banning blindside hits to the head was introduced in 2010-11. Even more troubling, the last NHL season saw only 28% of hits resulting in concussions deemed illegal. (LA Times) The simple fact is that as long as fighting and checking remain active parts of the hockey experience, ice hockey concussions aren’t going away.
Risks of Cutting Corners
As the parent of a hockey player, the best thing you can do is encourage awareness and honesty about concussive events. A hockey concussion in itself is a surmountable injury. Where you will find serious problems is if the concussion recovery process is neglected or mishandled.
The risks:
At the most basic level, if your child returns to the ice with a concussion, they will be a detriment to their team. Their recovery is in the team’s best interest. Imagine a precious vase balancing precariously on the edge of a cabinet. This is your child after one concussion. The concussion healing process gives the brain time to put itself back together properly - to move the vase back into safer territory - if you will. A premature return to action can spell catastrophe for the already unstable vase. Brain damage and even death are legitimate concerns if proper precautions aren’t taken with ice hockey concussions.
Steps You Can Take to Prevent Ice Hockey Concussions
Hold yourself accountable. Be realistic about the severity of a concussion and allow the time needed to recuperate. Hold your child accountable. Make sure they understand the risks of not communicating concussion symptoms. Being competitive is not worth risking their future health. Hold the school accountable. Ask your child if their coach ever talks about the dangers of concussions. No one can afford unreported traumatic brain injuries.
Make sure to keep an eye out for symptoms of hockey concussions. Physical, cognitive and emotional symptoms can all be tip offs. Be on the lookout for dizziness, nausea, slowness of speech, headaches, confusion, and mood swings, visual changes, among other signs. After that, just sit back and enjoy the action.

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