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Photographs taken Sept 18 2012 during senior football practice at St. Michael's College School in Toronto. The school performs baseline tests on all athletes taking part in extracurricular sports. If there's any suspicion of concussions, they take another baseline test to see if there is indeed any brain injury. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Photographs taken Sept 18 2012 during senior football practice at St. Michael's College School in Toronto. The school performs baseline tests on all athletes taking part in extracurricular sports. If there's any suspicion of concussions, they take another baseline test to see if there is indeed any brain injury. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Head injuries provide for an unsettling year in sports Add to ...

Now scientists are beginning to turn their focus to a possible gender effect in concussions, even though the dearth of literature on gender differences was highlighted four years ago as an area in need of more attention at the International Conference on Concussion in Sport.

“We’re still just ramping up. Science is really slow. It just takes us so long to get a protocol together, get it past the ethics boards, and find subjects,” said York University researcher Lauren Sergio. “Something that highlighted as a problem in 2008 isn’t something that shows up in the literature until now.”

Scientists are looking at plenty of possible culprits. Some believe that the reason is anatomical, and the way girls’ brains and skulls are shaped makes them more susceptible. Sergio said the reason could be biomechanical: girls’ necks and shoulders simply aren’t as capable of sustaining hits as boys’. Sociological reasons may be at play, too, she said. For example, boys are often encouraged to roughhouse and wrestle at a young age, so by the time they join organized sports, they may be used to falling properly.

Some concerned parents say the issue is in the refereeing. Even though bodychecking is banned in women’s hockey, hits do occur. A bodycheck can result in a major penalty, which means major consequences, such as a two-game suspension. They say some referees hesitate to call major penalties, because they don’t want to be too heavy-handed, for fear of retribution from parents.

5. New football helmet standards

According to a Canadian researcher who has worked in conjunction with the NFL to improve helmet safety, football helmets will soon be better equipped to mitigate the type of hits that result in concussion.

“More sophisticated standards are going to be developed within the coming year or two,” says Blaine Hoshisaki, a researcher at the University of Ottawa who is working with a non-profit corporation that certifies helmets in the United States to improve the way football helmets are tested.

Head injuries in football most commonly happen in two ways, Hoshisaki said. The first is a direct impact, when a player flies through the air and lands on their head. The second, more common way for head injuries to occur is from head-to-head impact, when two players’ heads collide. Football helmets are tested for the linear force that results from a direct impact, but are not tested for their ability to mitigate the rotational force generated by head to head hits, Hoshisaki said. The new, tougher standards will require football helmets do be tested for both linear and rotational forces.

Currently, hockey helmets aren’t tested for rotational forces, even though in hockey concussions most often result because of the rotational forces generated when a player’s head comes into contact with another player’s shoulder, elbow, or fist.

It’s possible that the CSA, which certifies all hockey helmets legally sold in Canada, will follow the lead of the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE), a non-profit corporation that funds research and develops performance standards for protective equipment used in a variety of sports in the United States, said Dr. Hoshisaki, who is working with NOCSEA to develop the new football helmet standards.

“Once we deliver one standard … then typically what happens that people then take that information and then begin developing similar types of protocols for other standards. And I think that’s what’s going to happen,” Hoshizaki said of the CSA.

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