Reducing Concussions In Boxing

March 19, 2013
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By SHIRLEY S. WANG

A major sports federation has mandated banning headgear in amateur boxing competition in an effort to reduce concussions and head trauma, a decision that is thought to be a first in the sports world.

Starting June 1, amateur, elite male boxers who compete internationally no longer will be allowed to use headgear in competition, according to rules released this week by the International Boxing Association, known as AIBA, which oversees amateur boxing.

Concussions and brain trauma in contact sports have been a concern for decades, and the risk has drawn increased scrutiny with growing evidence that they may be associated with a dementia-like condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy among U.S. football players.

There has been limited research to support this change, but fresh data, still unpublished, suggests the removal of headgear in elite, male amateur boxing reduces the incidence of concussion, according to the chairman of the AIBA medical commission, Charles Butler, a retired cardiac surgeon and ringside doctor, who spearheaded the study that served as part of the basis for the recommendation.

Concussion isn’t much of an issue in women and younger fighters who often lack the strength to bring on concussions in competitors, and they should continue to wear headgear to protect themselves from cuts, according to Dr. Butler.

Competitors do appear to be at greater risk of cuts without headgear, according to the research of Dr. Butler and others, but concussion is the injury of greater concern, Dr. Butler said.

“If you get a cut it will heal; if you break a bone it will heal,” Dr. Butler said. “If you can’t recognize your grandchildren, it’s a disaster.” In addition, glove technology has improved to help reduce the impact of blows, he said.

“All available data indicated that the removal of headguard in Elite Men would result in a decreased number of concussions,” the AIBA said in a statement.

Some brain experts said they found the decision surprising, and said they worry about a boxer who gets hit and falls to the hard canvas.

But overall, the evidence for the value of helmets is mixed.

Blaine Hoshizaki, director of the Neurotrauma Impact Science Laboratory at the University of Ottawa, said his and others’ research shows that headgear and gloves are able to decrease one type of force known as linear acceleration, but not rotational force, which comes from a twisting motion of the head, often from a blow to the side of the jaw or cheek. Boxing experts say knockouts often come from hits to the chin.

Headgear was added to amateur boxing in response to health concerns in the 1980s.

To help determine whether it has been beneficial, Dr. Butler studied boxers who competed in both AIBA-sanctioned events with headgear and the World Series of Boxing, which doesn’t allow headgear.

After collecting data on some 15,000 boxer rounds, Dr. Butler found that in the 7,352 rounds that took place with boxers wearing headgear, the rate of concussion was 0.38%, compared with 0.17% per boxer per round in the 7,545 rounds without headgear.

Dr. Butler, who plans to publish the findings after collecting additional data, cautioned that the findings are preliminary and need to be replicated.

The International Olympic Committee said it was aware of the rule AIBA change but has made no decision yet about the use of headgear in Olympic boxing competition.

Write to Shirley S. Wang at shirley.wang@wsj.com

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