Concussions in sports is still a “hard hitting” subject, but when will we see results?
Monday night’s NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams included a short report about one of the many on-going investigations that’s currently taking place on concussions. This time, Stanford researchers are using special electronic mouth guards to measure hits that 20 players from their own Cardinals football team receive during practices and in games. Included in this study is Chris Owusu who has suffered two concussions already this year. Additionally, players from Notre Dame and Washington are also participating in the study.
We initially discussed the topic of concussion research and potential legislation changes in an August blog post “Good News Bad News on Helmet Safety.” Four months later, the discussions continue, more research is being conducted, additional law suits are being filed and everyone seems to be pointing fingers at who is to blame for the recent ‘rise’ in concussions.
In October, the Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing to “examine the brain injury epidemic and questionable advertising for products that claim to protect athletes against concussion.”
Epidemic? Yes, I had to read it twice as well.
Concussions have not just magically appeared in sports and are now on widespread growth across the country. Just as we once thought the world was flat until enough research was collected to conclude otherwise, concussions have always been present in contact sports. It seems we’re just now getting smarter (or is it dumber?) about the effects of a concussion. Possibly the rise in research and awareness is spurred by the fact that leagues are finally getting hit where it really counts…their wallets.
Whatever the cause, over the past couple years we have begun to see some changes with regards to rules, updates in helmet technology and players, such as the Pittsburgh Penguin’s Boy Wonder (aka Sidney Crosby) talking about their concussion experiences and taking the issue seriously. In all, I couldn’t be happier that people are paying more attention to testing methods, play of the game and the study of sports engineering as a whole. I just hope that we (materials science engineers, product developers, sporting goods brands, leagues, players and fans) can find a common understanding in the matter and actually take steps that get results.
I know, it’s a lot of people to even get on the same chapter, but somewhere an end goal needs to be stated and deliverables set. Are we trying to completely eliminate all concussions? Keep players who have suffered concussions off the field? Change the public perception that wearing safety equipment means you’re a ‘whimp’ and ‘uncool’? Update the standards and regulations for safety equipment? Or something else? I’m sure it’s a combination of all, but clear, concise and actionable goals need to rise above this foggy cloud.
So out of this fog, there has been a couple interesting findings that every player, coach, parent and fan should take note of.
1) First, a concussion isn’t only cased by a single, large blow to the head. Rather a concussion can develop from repetitive minor hits. This has often been referred to as boxers’ syndrome but other sports, such as football, soccer and hockey, and even our men and women in the armed forces, are now in the spotlight.
2) The concussion data is still scattered and further collaboration and research needs to be obtained to get a clearer picture. For example, neuroscientist Kevin Guskiewicz and his colleagues at the University of North Carolina are studying football players who receive an average of 950 hits during each season. Even after 6 years of collecting data, Guskiewicz doesn’t feel comfortable saying whether 5 high-end impacts are less or more damaging to the brain than 50 lower-end ones. I can certainly appreciate his phrasing of the investigations as a “concussion puzzle.”
3) Not all concussions are created equal. Signs of a concussion may vary from player to player and can be seen immediately after a blow or appear weeks later. The Mayo Clinic provides additional details on signs and symptoms of concussions, including headache, dizziness or even loss of concentration or sleep disturbances.
Pre-season tests, such as the ImPACT (Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing) Test, are becoming a common procedure in leagues. The Clinical Medicine Research Group in Ontario Canada is one group that administers the ImPACT test that was developed in early 1990’s by Drs. Mark Lovell and Joseph Maroon. Basically it’s a 20-minute test that provides a detailed clinical report on various functions from eye coordination to memory. The report can later be used by doctors as a comparison point when trying to assess a player’s concussion and whether or not they have recovered. Some leagues are now requiring such tests to be completed by all players prior to the start of the season and the CMRG group expects they’ll administer over 17,000 tests in 5 provinces of Canada alone! For $25.00 you can take the test yourself on their website.
4) Players and purchasers of protective equipment need to take reasonable, precautionary actions when it comes to wearing, buying and relying on protective equipment. This speaks directly towards the age old act of reconditioning helmets. Reconditioning helmets has been a common practice in many leagues as the costs of reconditioning is about 1/3 the cost of a new helmet. Basically after each season a helmet is shipped to a reconditioning center, the shells are buffed, sanded and repainted and the interior parts that don’t pass inspection are replaced…so basically the worn out gear is returned to ‘like-new’ condition. This year, the National Athletic Reconditioners Association announced it will not recertify any helmet 10 years or older. So, any helmet dated 2002 or older will not be accepted.
From my standpoint, this isn’t acceptable. Just in the past 3 years we’ve seen revolutionary changes in helmet designs and materials which are tested to greatly improve the safety, fit and comfort of helmets. Furthermore, internal testing and design recommendations from Rogers stresses the idea that simply changing the foam or other protective padding in the helmet will not improve the overall protective capabilities of the helmet. Rather, the design and material composition of the shell should also complement the foam or other protective padding inside the helmet. We’ll provide more information on this testing and provide design solutions in an upcoming blog centered on protective foams and padding in helmets.
5) The rules of the game needs to be addressed. For example, this year the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) passed new high school ice hockey rules that were directly created to heighten the awareness and seriousness of any type of contact to the head. One change was an immediate minor, major and disqualification to any player who made contact with an opposing player’s head or neck area. A second was made to promote flow of the game, which in effect would help to eliminate the occasion for a one-on-one board check. Fans of the game and YouTube searchers may be disappointed with the decrease in ‘ouch’ moments they see during a game, but the promotion of flow during a game is a decent step in updating rules to help prevent concussion-creating moments.
6) There needs to be better collaboration between the players, material engineers and equipment designers on designing safety equipment that will actually be worn. Each year, safer equipment becomes available but the average professional isn’t interested in changing. Recently Tom Brady was interviewed on his recent ‘trial’ of a new helmet. He stated, “I’ve been wearing an older helmet for a long time. I was always like ‘[the newer helmets] are safer, but obviously this [old] one is doing a decent job. I’m still looking at other ones too, to see if they may be better or more comfortable, or perform better.”
I’ll first add that our sources give good insight that the helmet Tom Brady has worm “for a long time” uses technology that’s about 20 years old. 20 years ago technical advances included: Microsoft released MS Dos 5.0, internet was available to 1million computers worldwide, 2G mobile network was available in Europe but not in the US….so I’m a little concerned about the advanced technology in a 20 year old helmet. Second, Captain America probably falls in the same group of athletes who give their equipment the “mirror test.” Meaning if the equipment doesn’t help their on-screen head shot, it won’t make it in the locker room or on the playing field.
The materials science technology may be available but without a player’s willingness to try new equipment and provide feedback for meaningful changes in designs, we’ll come to this road block time and time again. Forcing players to wear a particular type of equipment isn’t the answer. Neither is continuing to develop technologies that no one wants to wear.
7) Finally, it seems each of these individual leagues and testing labs are still working within their own communities to find solutions instead of reaching out to others in the field to share and gather information. The NFL, NHL, MLB and others all seem to have their own separate committees which are conducting research and providing recommendations. We also can not forget about the sports which do not require helmets but concussions can still be a part of the game. Soccer for example has experienced their own traumas and loss of players due to head injuries. If a solution is to be found, it should be one which can benefit all players.
One example where science and engineering meets sports in a positive, academic environment is the International Sports Engineering Association (ISEA). The ISEA is a global community of sports engineers who come together to collect and share research on the technical aspects of sports engineering. The ISEA holds a biennial International Conference on the Engineering of Sport where the papers from each conference are published for future use. The next conference will be held in 2012 at the University of Massachusetts and we’re excited to say that our own Dave Sherman from Rogers will be presenting “Impact Mitigation Designs with Foams”. (Stay tuned for any future blogs from Dave about the topic!)
“Foamology 101” blog series coming your way!
Towards the end of December we’ll begin our blog series “Foamology 101: The Science Behind Choosing the Right Foam Material for Your Footwear and Protective Apparel Designs.” Over the course of several weeks we’ll discuss applications from footwear to protective equipment and present various methods and benefits for using different impact and cushioning agents in designs.
If you have questions on foams for impact protection or a new piece of equipment just launched, now would be your chance to ask! Either post them here, or e-mail them to email@example.com and we’ll make sure to include them in our forthcoming “Foamology 101” blog series.
‘Til next time!