May 17th, 2010
10:05 AM ET

Bracing for blow may ward off brain injury

By Stephanie Smith
CNN Medical Producer

On the ice at a youth hockey game, players hurl and slam into one another - and that's on a good night. That makes it the perfect venue to study how all those collisions - and a player's preparedness for them - can impact the severity of a head injury.

According to a new study in the journal Pediatrics, the better a player anticipated a collision with another player, the less jarring the impact to the head. Makes sense, but perhaps more important is the converse of this finding: The less prepared an athlete was for that jarring collision, the worse the blow to the head.

"If players anticipate collisions they can better absorb the forces related to impact," said Jason Mihalik, lead study author and assistant professor in the Department of Exercise and Sport Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "[Athletes] who don't expect to get body checked are not able to tense the neck muscles to absorb force, and that can lead to a more severe impact to the head."

Mihalik and colleagues conducted their study by tracking clashes between players at youth hockey games. During a full season, a team of 16 players between 13-14 years old wore special helmets outfitted with devices called accelerometers. The devices measured the acceleration of players' heads as they bumped into one another, while radio frequency devices on the helmets communicated the force of those blows to a computer outside the rink.

When a player's head was struck, the data were recorded on the sideline computer. That data were compared to game videos to determine whether players had anticipated the hits or if they were caught unaware, and the number of head injuries among team members during the season. It may seem like an obvious point, but as Mihalik and colleagues point out in the study, preparedness - and providing technical skills for players to recognize an imminent hit - really matter.

"Players don't anticipate on their own. they need training in it," said Mihalik. "Coaches need to prepare athletes to be aware on the ice and officials are also responsible for helping out."
When players are unprepared, the result, according to Mihalik, can be calamitous.

According to the National Center for Injury Protection and Control, 15- to 19-year-olds are at the highest risk for suffering a TBI. Among children up to 14 years old, 37,000 are hospitalized and 435,000 visit the emergency room as a result of TBI.

Study authors recommend that, "...coaches...promote the skills necessary to keep the safety of participants at the forefront…” - advice that coaches of any youth sport may wish to adopt.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.