Spinal-cord injuries hit teen athletes hardest
Spinal-cord injuries, such as those suffered recently by two Minnesota high school hockey players, are rare but more likely to occur among teenagers.
Between 1993 and 2011, about 60 Minnesota high school athletes were treated in hospitals for varying degrees of spinal-cord injuries. Among victims of sports-related spinal-cord injuries in Minnesota, about half were ages 14 to 19.
Football accounts for the greatest number of teens hurt during that time. But downhill skiing, wrestling and hockey have the highest injury rates per player, according to a Pioneer Press analysis of injury and participation data.
The injuries suffered by Benilde-St. Margaret’s hockey player Jack Jablonski and St. Croix Lutheran hockey player Jenna Privette have garnered significant attention in the media and on social-networking websites for this type of injury.
Jablonski, 16, is not expected to walk again after his spinal cord was severed Dec. 30 in a junior varsity game when the sophomore forward was checked from behind head-first into the boards.
Privette, 18, has no feeling in her legs after being injured in a Jan. 6 game. Her parents maintain she was checked into the boards, but Minnesota State High School League officials say there was no contact from another player. Checking is not allowed in girls high school hockey.
“These cases are very important in the fact that we want to make athletics something that creates the vigor and joy that sports are designed to do, not
create a devastating injury for a teenager,” said Amir Vokshoor, a neurological spine surgeon at DISC Sports & Spine Center in California.Vokshoor said teenagers are more susceptible to spinal-cord injuries because their necks have not fully developed.
The average age of a spinal-cord injury victim – regardless of the cause – is about 31, but most are between ages 16 and 28, Vokshoor said. A motor vehicle accident is the most common cause among all age groups nationally, accounting for about half of all spinal-cord injuries.
Among teenagers in Minnesota, motor vehicle accidents used to be the predominant cause, but sports cases recently surpassed vehicular cases, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Health.
Although there are varying degrees of severity, Vokshoor said even the mildest injury – such as the inability to use one hand – is devastating. And the most severe, quadriplegia, can cost millions of dollars per person just for day-to-day care.
The increasing competitiveness, strength and speed of high school athletes put more young people at risk of spinal-cord injuries, Vokshoor said.
“It feels to me that we’re pushing a lot harder at the young athlete level, and that creates a scenario where risk is increased and injuries can occur,” he said.
He added that “hockey is one of those sports where violence meets athleticism,” making spinal-cord injuries more likely.
“It just takes that much more responsibility on parents, coaches, anyone involved, to get these children the correct education in how much violence is OK to be used,” Vokshoor said.
As players, equipment and style of play continue evolving, rules and enforcement standards need to keep pace, hockey observers say.
Safer, lighter equipment creates a sense of invincibility among stronger, faster players eager to deliver big hits to the delight of fans craving physical play. Offenses that traditionally relied on puck carriers to zigzag up the ice trend more to cycling the puck in the attacking zone, exposing players to hits along the sidewalls and end boards.
“The game is different,” said Bill Kronschnabel, supervisor of officials for the Minnesota State High School League. “Everybody wants to play that game along the boards. As officials, we need to adapt, too. Players have to learn how to protect themselves, how not to deliver checks when people are in more vulnerable positions, and we have to have a heightened awareness to these situations.”
Hill-Murray assistant coach Pat Shafhauser, who was paralyzed after being checked head-first into the boards while playing professionally in Switzerland in 1995, flinches every time he sees a potential hit develop.
“It’s frightening, to be quite honest,” he said. “The play I was injured on happens just about every single game, a guy chasing the puck hard into the corner with a guy on his back. It’s amazing what happened to me and Jack doesn’t happen more often.”
Shafhauser, who uses a wheelchair, doesn’t have to warn his players about dangerous checks or remind them how fleeting playing the sport can be.
“Every single day, they are well aware of the consequences,” he said. “I try to teach them that part of their responsibility is knowing where the opponent is going into the wall. Take an angle when you pick up the puck. Take a look over your shoulder at where a guy is coming from to protect yourself. It’s not always on the other guy. Both guys are responsible for what they’re doing.”