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Sports Equipment Technology

Connected Tech Helps Address Sports Head Injury Concerns

July 31, 2013


Concussions recently have become a huge issue in sports, and it’s no wonder why. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that millions of sports-related concussions and mild traumatic brain injuries – which can cause long-term damage – occur annually.

Reports and studies indicate that professional athletes who are exposed to repetitive mild traumatic brain injuries may develop ongoing impairment such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative condition caused by a buildup of tau protein, according to a January article on the UCLA Newsroom. CTE has been associated with memory loss, confusion, progressive dementia, depression, suicidal behavior, personality changes, abnormal gait and tremors.

“Now, for the first time, UCLA researchers have used a brain-imaging tool to identify the abnormal tau proteins associated with this type of repetitive injury in five retired National Football League players who are still living,” the article goes on to say. “Previously, confirmation of the presence of this protein, which is also associated with Alzheimer's disease, could only be established by an autopsy.”

Image via Shutterstock

This heavy interest in concussions follows some high-profile pro football injuries and related lawsuits, which ultimately forced the National Football League to build a campaign around how it is addressing the problem. The NFL has altered some rules with an eye toward safety, created committees to focus on other safety-enhancing efforts, and committed $30 million to the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health for medical research on brain injuries and related topics. And as part of the NFL and NFL Players Association’s latest collective bargaining agreement, the two organizations agreed to commit $100 million to medical research over the next 10 years.

Of course, the risk of sports-related head injuries is not specific to professional football – or to the sport of football for that matter, although because it’s a contact sport football has become the center of activity on this issue. Other professional, as well as amateur, sports leagues and teams are also becoming more familiar with the risks and some are instituting new measures to address them.

Sports gear companies continue to do research and development to improve the safety of their equipment. But as advanced as helmets, mouth guards and other gear have become, no piece of equipment can completely eliminate the risk of a concussion or other injury. As a result, a variety of products that measure impact – to help coaches, trainers and parents decide whether to remove an athlete from the field – have recently been unveiled.

One of those products comes from Connecticut-based i1 biometrics. It’s a mouth guard that detects both linear and rotational acceleration of a player’s head upon impact. And it instantly transfers that information to a computer or smartphone on the sidelines, so involved parties can analyze the data.

MC10 has developed a sensor fitted into a mesh cap, called CheckLight, which senses when the athlete has taken a hit. When the Reebok-branded device displays a yellow light, it signals a moderate impact; a red light indicates a severe hit.

A TIME article on the device quotes NFL veteran linebacker Isaiah Kacyvenski, who is also on the MC10 advisory board, saying, “The whole point of the CheckLight system is that you don’t want the red or yellow light to be triggered. In our field tests, the majority of coaches reported that their athletes were more cognizant of keeping their head out of the path of impact. This is a real-time teaching tool to give you instantaneous feedback.”

A different but somewhat similar product, this one designed for student athletes, comes from X2 Biosystems. In fact, founder and CMO Rich Able came up with the idea after his son was knocked unconscious during a high school football game and suffered major subsequent attention, behavioral and mood problems.

The X2 solution, which at the end of July was still in preproduction, consists of software and the little xPatch, a sensor that attaches like a bandage onto the athlete’s skin (for example, Morgan Swanson, a former UW soccer player, wore it behind his ear). The device gathers information about head impacts and uses the X2Net wireless protocol to communicate the details of it to an X2 access point on the sidelines.

The Seattle-based company’s website homepage features the following quote from a Dr. Stanley Herring, which it credits with getting the Lystedt Law passed: “Concussion is a problem that will be solved with knowledge, not helmets.”

Edited by Alisen Downey