US Lacrosse takes aim at reducing concussions in women's game

CEO says organization is working with ASTM International to develop headgear standard

March 22, 2012|By Steve Stenersen, Special to The Baltimore Sun

There is no greater challenge than to appropriately balance a sport's integrity with injury risk. And there is also no greater responsibility for a sport's national governing body. Since the formation of US Lacrosse in 1998, the investigation of injuries in men's and women's lacrosse has been a focus of the doctors and researchers who make up its Sports Science & Safety Committee.

The prevention of injuries that involve the head, face and eyes has been an ongoing priority for US Lacrosse. Early in the organization's history, US Lacrosse mandated eyewear in women's lacrosse to prevent the rare injury caused by a ball hitting the eye. Although some players and coaches boycotted the organization over the decision, recent US Lacrosse-funded research concluded that eyewear represented a modest equipment intervention that, combined with rule changes and greater education, actually decreased the incidence of head and face injuries while virtually eliminating serious eye injuries.

Most agree that sports participation carries a risk of serious injury, but few agree on what constitutes acceptable risk in sport — and people's opinions can understandably change quickly when a child is injured. When serious injury occurs, passionate pleas for significant interventions focused on eliminating the risk of injury can understandably follow. But knee-jerk reactions based on emotion rarely result in sound decisions.

For instance, some parents and administrators have recently called for men's lacrosse helmets to be required in the women's game even though research has indicated that the concussion rates in high school boys lacrosse are considerably higher than in girls lacrosse, which has rates similar to those in high school girls soccer. Of growing concern are parents who seek to "concussion-proof" their children, many of whom may bring a history of concussion from other sports or activities to the lacrosse field, sometimes in a misguided attempt to return them to play before a brain injury is fully healed.

The organization is now focused on leading efforts to develop a headgear standard specific to women's lacrosse in collaboration with ASTM International. Women's lacrosse rules have long allowed soft headgear. But the rule predates the deeper understanding of concussions that has emerged in recent years, as well as any research on the causes of the injury in women's lacrosse.

While no headgear in any sport can eliminate the risk of concussion, US Lacrosse-funded research is focused on measuring the impact force of lacrosse stick checks and shot follow-throughs, which will be important to the development of a headgear standard specific to the risks and culture of the women's game.

Adding equipment is certainly one consideration to reduce injury risk, but the evolution of rules and the establishment of mandatory educational qualifications for coaches and officials are equally important. US Lacrosse has introduced significant rules changes to both men's and women's lacrosse in recent years based on a better understanding of how injuries to the head and face occur in each game, and has invested millions of dollars in the development of standardized education qualifications for coaches and officials.

In men's lacrosse, the organization championed recent rules changes at the college and high school levels that prohibit any contact to an opponent's head, and introduced a progressive introduction of body contact at younger age levels based on the physical and cognitive development stages of children. And in women's lacrosse, US Lacrosse has led more than a dozen rules changes, including the elimination of sticks checks at younger age levels and more severe penalties for dangerous checks at older age levels.

Continued investment in research and ongoing guidance from experts in the field of sports medicine are constants that will enable US Lacrosse to better educate players and parents about the risks associated with each version of the sport and responsibly introduce interventions focused on maintaining an appropriate balance between game integrity and injury risk.

Steve Stenersen is the CEO of US Lacrosse, the sport's national governing body.

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