For many, the highlight of the Winter Olympics is hockey. While the sport has never quite caught on in the US as it has in other, colder countries like Canada, the United States hockey teams both have a chance to go far in the Olympic games. The men’s and women’s teams have both had promising starts during preliminary matches, and their fight for medals will likely be the standout in the later days of the Sochi games.
But, many of the players may be dealing with microscopic changes in the brain from concussions they’ve accumulated in recent seasons.
A recent study published in the Journal of Neurosurgery says hockey players who sustained concussions during a recent season showed acute microstructural changes to their brains, which may be an indicator of the origins of more serious and long-term problems.
“We’ve seen evidence of chronic injuries later in life from head trauma, and now we’ve seen this in current players,” said Dr. Paul Echlin, an Ontario sports concussion specialist who conducted the study in collaboration with Dr. Martha Shenton of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and researchers from Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital and Western University of Canada.
In the study, the first to every use magnetic resonance imaging analysis before, during, and after a season, forty-five male and female Canadian university hockey players were observed by independent physicians during the 2011-12 season.
All players underwent scans before and after the season, but the 11 players who were diagnosed with a concussion during the season also were given scans within 72 hours of the incident, with follow up scans two weeks and two months later.
The scans shows players who had been diagnosed with concussions developed microscopic and inflammatory changes to the brain. Additionally, the diagnosed players and players who reported a history of concussions showed white matter microstructure changes compared to players who showed no history of brain injuries.
The researchers suggest the changes may be indicating microhemorrhaging, neural injury, or other inflammatory responses to brain trauma.
In many ways, hockey is undergoing the same crisis facing the NFL. Increasing evidence shows that players are putting their brains in incredible risk by playing the game, especially at a young age.
“How many more studies do we need before we realize significant changes are needed in the way we play the game?” Echlin said.
Echlin continued: “We want our children to keep playing hockey and other sports for the fun, health benefits, and heightened self-esteem they derive from it. But, we have to look seriously at the structure of the games out children play. We have to protect our children’s brains.”
The children playing hockey today may go on to make Olympic history years from now, but we have to ask what the cost really is.