Initial findings of a study on concussions and junior league hockey players show the injury appears to have a lingering effect on brain behaviour.
While the results are not surprising, Simon Fraser University researcher Mike Gaetz says they raise serious questions about players' health and the risks involved in playing the game.
Gaetz spent last fall testing nearly 280 players from the B.C. Junior Hockey League's 14 provincial teams, prior to the start of the season. Gaetz has since modified the tests and is now re-testing players.
The two-hour tests, conducted in a mobile testing unit set up outside local rinks, include an electroencephalogram, or EEG, which measures electrical activity in the brain. Players conduct a range of tasks -- from simply pushing a button to keeping a running mental count of words presented on a computer screen -- while brain function is monitored. Motor control and co-ordination tests are also carried out.
"We found that the functional brain responses looked significantly different in players with concussions after re-testing," says Gaetz. "The more complex the tasks, the more the chances of showing the effects of concussion increased."
Gaetz asked tested players to call him immediately after being diagnosed with concussions during the season. Using a portable testing unit, Gaetz travelled around the province, often on a moment's notice, to repeat the tests on 25 players. Tests were done 24 hours after the initial diagnosis, and repeated at two weeks, one and three months following the injury.
All injured players were diagnosed with mild concussions, with conditions ranging from no loss of consciousness to brief unconsciousness. Some spent a day or two in the hospital.
Gaetz is currently comparing findings with similar data from tests on car accident victims, gathered by Gaetz and SFU kinesiologist Hal Weinberg five years earlier. "With either injury, the head undergoes acceleration changes where the brain moves within the skull, and the result is a stretching of cells," explains Gaetz.
Researchers have found those who suffer concussions are more vulnerable to the injury, and that repetitive injuries come with less force and have symptoms that last longer.
"Concussions can end careers," says Gaetz, noting how the persistence of symptoms led to the early retirement of Brett Lindros, brother of NHL star Eric Lindros, and sidelined Paul Kariya of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. "But it's not just NHL players who are being hurt. Players as young as 12 or 13 are sustaining these injuries. We want to know more about the long term effects."
The study, which involves kinesiologists and physicians from SFU and UBC, is Gaetz's thesis project. It's funded by a grant from the Rick Hansen Neurotrauma Initiative.
Materials provided by Simon Fraser University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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