Lacrosse players may be more likely than players in other sports to suffer from a heart-stopping condition sometimes referred to as "concussion of the heart" triggered by being hit in the chest with the lacrosse ball.
And, according to a study of the subject, commercially available chest protectors may not offer adequate protection.
Still, lacrosse players do not appear to be at any greater risk of dying on the field, overall, than players of other competitive contact sports, a report out in the journal Pediatrics today finds. Such deaths are rare, about 1.5 per combined 100,000 years of participation by all players.
However, the risk of "commotio cordis," a sudden disturbance of heart rhythm leading to a stopped heart and to almost half of those deaths, is higher in lacrosse than in all other sports except baseball and hockey.
The speed of the hard rubber ball used in lacrosse can be as high as 100 miles per hour. Lacrosse is the fastest growing youth sport in the US, with approximately 500,000 young players throughout the country.
A given player's risk of death or stopped heart over all eight years of high school and college would still be incredibly small: In looking at data from the Sudden Death in Young Athletes Registry for the 28-year period 1980 to 2008, Dr. Barry J. Maron from the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation in Minnesota and colleagues identified 23 sudden deaths or stopped hearts in male high school and college lacrosse players.
Ten of these lacrosse players, they found, died after receiving high-velocity blunt chest blows from the lacrosse ball, including four goalies who were wearing commercially available chest protectors. Twelve others collapsed because of pre-existing heart disease.
The death rate associated with competitive lacrosse did not differ significantly from other contact sports, including basketball, baseball and football, the report states.
However, "concussion of the heart" events due to blunt chest trauma were disproportionately more common in lacrosse than in other sports, except baseball and hockey.
Clearly, better chest protectors are needed, Maron said, and U.S. Lacrosse, the sport's national governing body in the U.S., is highly involved in this effort.
"There really is no other organization that has taken this issue to heart as much as lacrosse. They have pursued the development of a chest protector in a very definite way and have spent money to do that. They don't want these risks, which are not limited to lacrosse, to affect the fastest growing sport in America."
"It's not just lacrosse," Maron emphasized, "but lacrosse has gotten a bad rap, because of a few of these events, maybe more so than other sports."