Contact isn't allowed in girls' high-school lacrosse -- but concussions are still a concern

Football isn't the only sport worried about head trauma, according to a recent study published by the The American Journal of Sports Medicine and co-authored by Dawn Comstock, an associate professor of epidemiology for the Pediatric Injury Prevention, Education, and Research program at the Colorado School of Public Health. Lacrosse is one of the fastest-growing youth sports in America, with over 170,000 active participants. And concerns about lacrosse-related concussion are also growing.

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For the study, several doctors teamed up to study high-school lacrosse injuries of both boys and girls from 2008-2012, using data collected from athletic trainers across America. The results, released this month, showed that concussions are the second-most common injuries among both boys and girls -- after sprains and strains.

Although concussions aren't rare in contact sports such a boy's lacrosse, the rate of concussions in the girls' game -- almost 23 percent of the injuries sustained by the female atheletes -- is somewhat perplexing, considering that women's lacrosse bans contact.

Requiring helmets on girls has been a hot issue in the lacrosse community for some time, and studies like this add fuel to the fire. Girls are currently required only to wear goggles and mouth guards, with soft headgear optional. CU's Comstock, whose data-surveillance system was used in the lacrosse study, has conducted numerous investigations on high school sports injuries; she believes implementing hard helmets could significantly reduce girls' concussions.

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"In boy's lacrosse, nearly 75 percent of concussions were from athlete-on-athlete contact," Comstock explains. "But in girl's lacrosse, 63 percent of concussions came from equipment injuries." Those kinds of injuries are sustained when a player is hit by the lacrosse ball or stick, she adds. and can be largely prevented by lacrosse helmets. "Think about construction workers," Comstock says. "If someone drops a hammer above them, the hard hat protects the force of the hammer transferring to their brain, and the trauma is averted."

While Comstock says equipment injuries can be prevented with helmets, concussions caused by what she calls "brain-slosh" are much harder to avoid .

According to Comstock, brain-slosh occurs when two athletes hit each other and one's head pops back and forth violently, while the brain is bouncing around inside the skull. It's because of plays like these that some lacrosse coaches and players are hesitant to bring helmets to the girls game.

Kenzie Gainer, president of the University of Denver's women's club lacrosse team, doesn't want to see helmets required in girl's lacrosse because she thinks it will "change the nature of the game."

"I haven't dealt with concussions through my experience with lacrosse," Gainer says. "However, I do live on the West Coast, which has a different level of intensity than East Coast women's lacrosse due to its newness out here."

Comstock, who presented the study's findings, declines to take a stance on the issue of helmets but does say the data supports girls wearing helmets.

Denver East High School girls lacrosse coach Mallory Cleveland agrees, and says she wants to see helmets in the girls game -- although she understand the opposition. "I remember when eye-goggles were required around ten years ago, and everyone was up in arms," Cleveland says. "Now we all feel naked playing without them. I think helmets would go through a similar transition period, but players would get used to them."

Cleveland, who played lacrosse at the University of San Diego, says contact in girl's lacrosse happens more frequently than people think, and prevention lies on the shoulders of coaches and officials, not safety equipment. "It's hard for officials to catch everything, but they have a responsibility out there," Cleveland says. "Just like coaches have a responsibility to teach girls how to play within the rules."

Despite the ongoing debate over protective equipment, Cleveland believes both side sare committed to learning about concussion prevention. "Lacrosse coaches all have to take concussion courses each year," she says. "This is a safety issue that has definitely moved to the top of our lists, and everyone is concerned."

Despite the hazards, Comstock says she would have no problems with her children playing lacrosse, noting that the benefits of an active lifestyle greatly outweigh the risks of injuries. "I would never want any of our research to scare parents into not letting their kids play lacrosse," she concludes. "We just need to do everything we can to develop the best prevention of these head injuries." Have a tip? E-mail editorial@westword.com.

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