TUESDAY, Feb. 7, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- It happens on local rinks and in the National Hockey League, and viewers will see it in this month's Olympics, too -- tough, punishing body checking by hockey players.
Professionals may be able to handle it, but what about teen and pre-teen players? A new Canadian study suggests the practice puts adolescent boys at much higher risk of serious injury, including concussions and fractures.
"Kids should not be allowed to body check in ice hockey until they're at least 14 years old because of the injury rates at the lower ages," advised the study's lead researcher, Alison Macpherson, assistant professor of kinesiology and health science at York University in Toronto.
But, what about the theory that learning to body check when young helps "toughen up" young players, keeping them relatively injury-free as they get older?
Not so, according to Macpherson. The study makes it clear that "learning to check early doesn't keep kids safer later on," she said.
According to the SafeUSA organization, most American hockey leagues for young players ban body checking, but it's sometimes allowed in high school leagues. Body checking -- hitting opposing players, typically with the hips or torso -- is, of course, a common sight in professional hockey.
"It's certainly part of the hockey culture," Macpherson said, although she noted that women's leagues don't allow body checking.
In the study, Macpherson and her colleagues examined seven years of hockey injuries among male players 10 to 15 years of age in the provinces of Ontario and Quebec.
In Ontario, checking is allowed starting at age 10 in competitive leagues, but it's only allowed beginning at ages 14 and 15 in Quebec.
Reporting in the February issue of the journal Pediatrics, the researchers found that the boys were 42 percent more likely to suffer a concussion and 25 percent more likely to suffer fractures in Ontario leagues where body checking is allowed.
And among older, more experienced players, injuries from checking were nearly two times as likely in Ontario -- even though those players would have been introduced to checking earlier on.
"Learning to check earlier didn't mean they had fewer injuries later," Macpherson said.
Macpherson said the study findings confirm that the American Academy of Pediatrics is correct in suggesting that boys aged 15 and younger should not be allowed to body check.
Barry Willer, a professor of psychiatry and rehabilitation medicine at the University of Buffalo, N.Y., disagreed. Willer, who studies youth injuries, co-wrote an earlier study that suggested body checking doesn't deserve its bad rap.
In that study, researchers found a spike in injuries when body checking is first introduced and then another one "when puberty hits and testosterone levels go up," Willer said.
He opposes the idea of eliminating body checking entirely and said early use of body checking helps players get physically used to the practice.
"It's part of the sport," he said.
Learn more about hockey safety from SafeUSA.