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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Preteen hockey players are more than three times as likely to get hurt if body checking is allowed, researchers from Canada said Tuesday, and the smallest kids take the hardest hits.
While the findings might not come as a huge surprise, Canada is split on whether or not to permit 11- and 12-year-olds, the so-called Pee Wees, to use the technique, in which players use their bodies to knock over opponents.
High injury rates have been a mainstay of the arguments against body checking, but not all studies have reached the same conclusions. For instance, another Canadian study recently suggested it might be safe for kids as young as 9 years old to use body checking. (See Reuters Health Report Mar 22, 2010: Body-checking safe in preteen hockey players)
"It's been a controversial topic, and certainly there are proponents of early body checking," said Carolyn A. Emery, of the University of Calgary in Alberta, who led the new research. "We just wanted to provide the best-possible scientific evidence on the topic."
To do that, Emery and her colleagues compared injury rates in a province that allows Pee Wee checking (Alberta) and one that does not (Quebec). In total, 150 teams signed up to record their injuries during the 2007-2008 season.
There were a total of 241 injuries in Alberta, compared to only 91 injuries in Quebec. After accounting for the number of hours played, the risk of getting hurt was more than three times as high in Alberta as in Quebec, and the most frequent injury was concussion, the researchers report in JAMA/Journal of the American Medical Association.
In Alberta, the vast majority of injuries were related to body checking, and light-weight players were the most likely victims. Emery pointed out that preteens vary a lot in size; the smallest player in the study weighed less than 60 pounds, while the heaviest was about 200 pounds.
"This study will hopefully inform policy makers," said Emery, who called the injury rate related to body checking "a significant public health concern."
Dr. Robert Dimeff, a sports medicine physician at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas who was not involved in the study, said the long-term consequences of frequent concussions are still unknown, although doctors now take them much more seriously than a few decades ago.
He said arguments from a sports perspective sometimes clash with public health concerns.
"In Canada, hockey is absolutely a religion, and body checking is part of the sport," he said. While he did not support a complete ban in youth hockey, he said the question was when to allow checking.
"Maybe we need to bump up that age to 13 or 14 when the kids have a little more body mass," he said.
JAMA/Journal of the American Medical Association, June 9, 2010.