Whether professional or amateur, there’s no arguing that ice hockey is among the most rough-and-tumble sports people play. Athletes on the ice come in all sizes and the nonstop, aggressive and fast-paced action can lead to hockey injuries that range in severity and complexity.
Despite attempts to avoid full-impact collisions in hockey, these incidents are bound to occur and can lead to some of the worst hockey injuries. Even without that, hockey players’ bodies are continually stressed by the demands of the sport.
In other words, to be a hockey player is to understand that injuries will happen. But having a good grasp on how to prevent and treat many of these issues can decrease the number of injuries and speed up healing time.
What are the Most Common Hockey Injuries?
It’s nearly impossible to isolate one single most common hockey injury because there are so many. Narrowing down the Top 2 hockey injuries for NHL professional players might be cuts requiring stitches and getting a tooth, or multiple teeth knocked out.
Stitches and missing teeth are usually limited to pro players because college players and younger are all required to wear helmets with some type of face guard to save the face from stitches and prevent the teeth from being knocked out.
Aside from those two types injuries, the rest on this list are typical for players of all ages.
Concussions are Common Hockey Injuries
Concussions are serious brain injuries that occur frequently in ice hockey. They are the result of collisions with the boards, the ice, or other players.
Concussions can cause a person to experience confusion, dizziness, nausea, cognitive issues, and vision problems. Players with any of these symptoms should not be allowed to play until fully examined by a physician and the symptoms have been resolved.
Proper fitting helmets and face shields can reduce the occurrence of concussions, but they are not always fool proof.
In 2016, the NHL updated the concussion protocol and instituted Central League Spotters and In-Arena League Spotters to identify players who may have experienced a concussion during a game. They have the authority to remove a player from the game for an evaluation.
Shoulder dislocations and separations are common in athletes that play ice hockey. A shoulder dislocation occurs when the humerus, or the ball of the shoulder joint, pops out of the socket.
An acromioclavicular or AC separation develops when soft tissue or ligaments attached to the clavicle or the coracoid (a small bone at the front of the shoulder) become damaged. This causes the collarbone to separate from the shoulder blade.
Both of these injuries can result from impact against the boards or other players and usually cause immense pain.
All players wear shoulder pads to minimize impact, but they are much smaller than the pads worn by football players and are mostly intended to protect against hockey sticks and flying pucks.
The olecranon is the tip of the elbow and is an area of the body that can take a lot of abuse in hockey, either from falls on the ice, impact with the boards, or other players.
This area can also be affected by overuse injuries related to grip-related stress on the stick, as well as swinging movements.
When the soft-tissue around the elbow gets inflamed, it can cause swelling, tenderness, and a decrease in pain-free range of motion.
Elbow pads offer good protection against hitting the boards or ice, although they don’t help reduce overuse or motion injuries similar to Pitchers Elbow in baseball.
The MCL is the ligament on the inside part of the knee. Though it’s one of the strongest ligaments in the knee, the MCL is often injured by a blow to the outside part of the knee.
The ACL, which allows the knee to twist, pivot, and make cutting movements, can be torn either partially or completely from intense twisting movements involved in impact, or intense stop and start motions.
Having a torn ACL will lead to significant instability issues and players must be fully evaluated before returning to play.
Bobby Orr was one of the greatest hockey players of all time, and his career was cut short at the age of 30 years old due to numerous hockey injuries to his knees.
All players wear knee and shin pads to protect against flying pucks and sticks, but they do not offer protection against a side impact or the many twisting motions endured by the knees of hockey players.
Severe impact can lead to spinal injuries especially in the lower back, and more commonly, pulled or strained muscles and soft tissue from the repeated stress of training and playing.
Obviously, a player with significant pain in any region of the spine should undergo a full examination before getting back on the ice.
Fortunately, soft tissue pain and bruising in the back are more common hockey injuries than spinal problems for most hockey players.
Shoulder pads can reduce upper back pain caused by impact and hip pads in the pants offer some cushion in the lower region, although the middle of the back doesn’t have any type of padding.
Because of the mechanics of ice-skating, hip injuries are common among hockey players of all ages.
Hip-flexor pulls often occur because the sprint start in hockey puts the hip in two at-risk positions – at the initial push-off and then the recovery phase at the end of the stride.
Hockey pants are very loose on the body and can move so the padding does not always stay in place for protection causing the hips to become bruised during collisions with other players, the boards, or when falling on the ice.
Sprains and strains in the ankle are to be expected because of the rigorous motions the sport requires.
Collisions with another player’s skate may also happen from time to time and can be serious if a laceration is deep enough to tear or sever tendons and ligaments.
Getting hit in the ankle with a stick can be painful but it’s nowhere near as excruciating as taking a slapshot directly to the ankle on the side of the skate. A similar slapshot to the front laces causes intense top of foot pain that is even worse.
Some players wear ankle pads that fit on the outside of the skate to protect the ankles and top of the foot from sticks and pucks.
Poor-fitting skates worn by younger players can cause issues like “skate bite” or “lace bite” where the tongue of the skate irritates the soft-tissue in the ankle and foot. This is usually caused by lacing the skates too tight to compensate for a poor fit.
Approximately 10 percent of all hockey injuries are related to groin strains, and many of them happen in the early part of the season when players are just beginning on-ice workouts.
Similar to hip injuries, groin strains are common because of the movements involved in ice skating. Fast starts to gain speed, and the powerful force the groin endures during pivots, redirections, and stops can lead to a strained groin.
The repeated stress on the groin can lead to pain, inflammation, and tenderness. In more serious cases, tears or ruptures can occur.
There aren’t any pads or equipment that will prevent groin injuries, and proper training and conditioning can help limit these conditions.
Almost all hockey players incorporate a number groin stretches into their warm-up routine every time they get on the ice before practice or a game.
Hamstring injuries are frequently seen in sports that require explosive movements like football, soccer, and of course hockey.
An injury to the hamstring can occur from overuse, a strain from not properly stretching before playing, or quick changes in movement like those used in hockey.
Hamstring tendonitis pain behind the knee makes it difficult for players to skate and continue playing without adequate rest and some form of treatment.
Ways to Prevent Hockey Injuries
Like with other sports, there are injury-causing elements of hockey that just can’t be eliminated, but they can be mitigated to decrease the severity of injuries.
Proper fitting helmets, face shields, skates and pads are all essential. Hockey equipment seems to improve each year and using the latest gear can be expensive but worthwhile in terms of performance and protection against hockey injuries.
Next, strength training can improve flexibility and the body’s ability to endure the stress of the sport and recover between games or practice.
Proper technique and form cannot be overlooked either. In younger athletes, good technique should be taught early and continually drilled and practiced until it becomes second nature. This will not only help prevent hockey injuries but also improve their game.
Everyone should learn how to warm-up and stretch before and after practice or games. Each sport has some form of pre-workout stretching and hockey is no exception with many unique types of stretches and exercises to increase mobility and decrease the chances of injuries.
Finally, in youth leagues, there should be zero tolerance for intentional hits to the head, no fighting allowed, and rules regarding how players can check others on the ice.
Concussion protocols are reviewed frequently and all teams, players, and trainers should follow the recommendations mandated by the leagues.
Treatment Methods for Hockey Injuries
It’s important to not ignore pain or injury, or as coaches have been known to say, “rub a little ice on it and get out there.” This is especially true in younger athletes, whose bodies are still developing.
Treatment approaches for hockey injuries will vary depending on the type and severity of the issue. However, some of the common treatment methods are similar for other sports.
6 Types of Treatment for Hockey Injuries
1. The RICE Method
RICE stands for Rest, Ice, Compress, and Elevate. This conservative approach is effective for minor strains, tears, or some tendonitis issues. This is especially critical in the first 72 hours of an injury.
While ice or cold packs can help reduce inflammation and pain, compression will support the joint or painful impacted area. Rest gives the injury time to heal and recuperate. If possible, elevate the injured area above the heart.
2. Taping and Strapping
Proper taping and strapping can help give additional support to areas like the ankle, or reduce stress on muscles and other soft-tissue by providing extra tension.
Taping shins guards will help them stay in place for the most protection.
Some players usually preemptively tape areas prone to injury in an effort to avoid injuring that part of the body in the first place. This can also help a player with a minor strain to play through the injury.
3. Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Medications
Over-the-counter pain medications, like ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin), can help lessen injury related pain and will aid in decreasing inflammation.
Depending on the injury, some athletes may require a steroid injection to reduce inflammation and pain that is more serious.
4. EPAT / Shockwave Therapy
EPAT Therapy, also known as Shockwave Treatment, is a painless, noninvasive method for speeding up the healing process.
Shockwave Therapy Machines deliver impulse pressure waves deep into muscles and tissue, creating better blood flow and reducing inflammation to the injured area.
There is no scaring or risk of infection like with surgery, and EPAT sessions can be delivered while a player continues to train and play without suffering from performance issues.
Many teams and trainers in college and the National Hockey League use EPAT / Shockwave Therapy because it is effective for treating many types of hockey injuries and it allows the players to heal faster and return to playing more quickly than other treatment methods.
5. Physical Therapy
For overcoming hockey injuries, even minor ones, physical therapy is often a good way to strengthen the injured area during recovery, as well as learn proper form and technique to avoid further injury.
A combination of physical therapy and other treatment modalities like EPAT / Shockwave Therapy can help decrease injury-related downtime and get the athlete back on the ice faster.
6. Surgery for Hockey Injuries
Typically, surgery is a last resort after all of the more conservative treatment approaches have failed to work. Invasive fixes are usually limited to severe tears that need repairing or the excessive build-up of scar tissue that requires breaking up.
Unfortunately, surgery comes with longer recovery times and there are always inherent risks associated with it.
Surgery to repair knee injuries has come a long way since the days of Bobby Orr, and he probably would have enjoyed a longer career if he had access to today’s surgical technology.
It’s easy to understand why hockey injuries are so prevalent, given the speed and nature of the sport, and the fact that players skate on ice surrounded by boards. Add to that, the players are carrying sticks and hitting an eight ounce piece of hard vulcanized rubber near each other at speeds over 100 miles per hour.
Luckily many ice hockey injuries are avoided by excellent equipment and padding combined with proper training.
When injuries do happen, some of the treatment methods outlined here can get players back on the ice quickly with little downtime from the game.