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Minor sports, major injuries

Amateur sports groups, including minor hockey leagues and local soccer associations, should be doing more to promote awareness and prevention of head injuries, says a leading expert.

Failure to do so will lead to more injuries among Canadian children and could also expose minor sports organizations to costly liabilities.

“I think we need to review our standards for protection, and I think we have to review the rules of the game for our amateur athletes,” said David Mulder, head of thoracic surgery at Montreal’s McGill University.

“I think the liability issue is going to come front and centre for concussions and for all injuries.”

Mulder, who grew up in Eston, Sask., now serves as the chief physician for the National Hockey League’s Montreal Canadiens. He said research, education and preventive programming are keys to reducing head injuries in professional and amateur hockey.

He also said North American hockey organizations that are serious about reducing concussions should:

  • adopt International Ice Hockey Federation rules
  • eliminate fighting
  • conduct studies to determine if new, hard-shelled protective equipment such as shoulder pads and elbow pads are contributing to head injuries

Head injuries common

Mulder said concussions generate the most attention when a high profile professional athlete is injured.

However, head injuries are also common in amateur leagues and can have a serious effect on athletes at all levels of competition.

Professional leagues, most notably the NHL, have taken steps to reduce the prevalence and severity of head injuries.

However, in some cases amateur leagues have been less proactive.

Children involved in minor sports often mature at different ages, so size discrepancies can increase the risk of injury among smaller players.

In addition, most minor or amateur leagues don’t have standardized return-to-play protocols, such as the ones adopted by the NHL.

Players who suffer concussions in the NHL must be symptom-free before returning to play and must also pass a series of graduated tests without experiencing headaches, dizziness, nausea and other tell-tale symptoms.

Mulder said professional sports leagues are becoming more aware of the impact that head injuries can have on a athlete’s long-term health.

However, the medical profession still has trouble diagnosing concussions accurately and determining exactly when it is safe for an athlete to return to the playing field.

“We do our best,” he said.

“We rest them until they’re asymptomatic and we put them through their graded return-to-play programs … which I think is a very positive development for the NHL. It’s not perfect but I think its better than nothing.”

Liability for the long-term well-being of athletes is emerging as a key concern for professional and amateur sports leagues.

A class-action lawsuit launched recently by former players in the National Football League suggests that professional leagues can be held financially liable for long-term health risks that stem from sports-related head injuries.

Amateur leagues could reduce their liability by taking a proactive approach to reducing head injuries and by implementing programs aimed at education, awareness and prevention.

Mulder, a graduate of the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Medicine, was in Saskatoon last week to speak at the college’s 27th annual reunion conference.

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