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Study: Bigger players not to blame for more concussions

Posted: Wednesday August 06, 2003 8:17 PM
Updated: Wednesday August 06, 2003 8:35 PM
  Eric Lindros Eric Lindros is one of many players to be plagued by recurring concussions. Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images

TORONTO (AP) -- The reported concussion rate among NHL players has tripled recently, but the usual suspects -- bigger players, modern equipment and harder boards -- aren't to blame, according to a Canadian research team.

Instead, a newfound respect for the head injury that has cut so many hockey careers short means players are more likely to report concussions instead of shrugging them off.

"I think it's become much less of a macho thing," Dr. Richard Wennberg, one of the study's authors, said Wednesday.

The study, published in the August issue of the Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences, looked at the number of reported concussions in the NHL over 16 seasons, from 1986-87 to 2001-02.

The results showed the reported concussion rate during the last five years was more than three times that of the previous decade.

There were 17 concussions reported in 1995-96 (eight per 1,000 games), but by 2000-01, that number had risen to 74 (30 per 1,000 games), the most for any season. The NHL reported 62 concussions last season (25 per 1,000 games).

During the course of the study, the average weight of an NHL player increased from 191 pounds to 200.1 pounds.

"I presumed, like you might guess, that the players are bigger and faster ... and it's spiraling out of control," said Wennberg, a neurologist at Toronto's Western Hospital who co-authored the study with neurosurgeon Dr. Charles Tator.

But after looking at the data, the researchers concluded the sharp increase -- which leveled off after the 1997-98 season -- was more likely due to increased awareness by players and their doctors about the seriousness of head injuries.

"In the past, people just got told to get out on the ice and suck it up," Wennberg said. "Now that it's acknowledged, at least that's a step in the right direction."

Wennberg said the heightened awareness likely began when high-profile players were affected by concussions, which occur when the brain hits against the skull after a collision.

The increase also coincided with the start of the NHL's concussion program that tested players for effects from the injury, and a 1997 publication by the American Academy of Neurology about diagnosing concussions in sports.

At least eight NHL players have retired prematurely in the last 10 years because of repeated concussions, including Brett Lindros and Pat LaFontaine.

Many more -- including Paul Kariya, who missed the 1998 Olympics because of a concussion, Eric Lindros and goalie Mike Richter -- have been forced to take long stretches off because of repeated head injuries.

Long-term effects of concussions can include chronic headaches, sleep disorders, mood swings, balance problems, and difficulty concentrating.


 
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