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Knocked Out

When does a hit become one hit too many? New concussion research shows that head injuries sustained by young athletes have more serious long-term consequences than once thought.

Knocked Out
Photo by Todd Buchanan

(page 3 of 3)

Major changes in youth sports are on the way. The Minnesota legislature, in a rare display of bipartisanship, enacted a law last spring that requires youth coaches and officials to complete a government-designed online concussion-focused training course. The law also requires young athletes to be removed from play or practice immediately at the first sign of a concussion. They can’t return until getting an all-clear from a qualified healthcare professional.

State Senator Terri Bonoff was one of the law’s most vocal supporters, and with good reason. Both her sons experienced career-ending concussions in high school, one while defending home plate from an aggressive base runner and the other after being tackled by four linemen. “I understand just how serious concussions are,” says Bonoff, “and what they do to the brain.”

Hockey parents will notice major changes this season. In June, USA Hockey banned body-checking during games played at the boys’ peewee level (ages 11-12). (Body checking isn’t permitted in girls’ hockey.) Furthermore, gratuitous hits at all levels are going to be more strictly enforced, says Michael Stuart, co-director of the Mayo Clinic’s Sports Medicine Center and chief medical officer for USA Hockey.

Minnesota Hockey’s board of directors vigorously opposed the rule change, claiming it would result in more injuries because boys wouldn’t be prepared for body-checking upon leaving the peewee level. Canadian research says otherwise, notes Stuart.

“The opposition felt we were violating the sanctity of the game,” he adds. “But actually, we’re not. We’re making the game better.”

“Everybody thinks [body-checking] is OK until it’s their child or grandchild who misses eight weeks of school because they’re seriously injured with a brain injury,” says Hal Tearse, coach-in-chief of Minnesota Hockey, who supports the change.

In ninth grade, Matt Hovila nervously returned to the basketball court. Three injury-free years later, he was voted captain of his Bloomington Jefferson High School Jaguars.

Then, during the final minutes of a game last January, he took a sharp blow to the base of his skull. “It was pretty bad pain,” Matt recalls, “but I didn’t think it was a concussion.”

About an hour later came the all-too-familiar symptoms: headache and dizziness. His parents rushed him to the hospital, where doctors confirmed that he had indeed sustained a concussion.

“I was done after that,” Matt says.

Now 18, Matt will attend Minnesota State University at Mankato State this fall—if his health lets him.

But just because he can’t play sports anymore doesn’t mean he’s completely sidelined. Last spring, he volunteered as a speaker for the Brain Injury Association of Minnesota. “I tell people not to go back too early,” he says. “Make sure you’re symptom-free.”

Susan Perry is a Minneapolis journalist who frequently writes about health and medicine.

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