Lethal hits: Professional sports need to disarm the ongoing concussion problem


Photo by Ben Hershey on Unsplash

   “He got his bell rung.” This was the common phrase used before athletes were diagnosed with concussions. And, as most of us in the sports world know, a lifetime of violent sports such as hockey, lacrosse, and football can potentially lead to a repeated history of concussions; making the chance of acquiring severe mental illnesses a much greater possibility. As a result professional sports leagues have taken protective measures against concussions. The National Hockey League (NHL) is requiring players keep their helmets on when they fight and the National Football has stressed the concept of heads up football, where players at all levels are influenced to not lead with the crown of their helmet.  While this is a step in the right direction, it cannot be seen as a long term solution. Players are still getting concussions and the league’s concussion policy puts too much of a burden on doctors who are held accountable for determining if a player is in the right condition to come back into a game. The NFL has been toying around with the idea of helmet innovations. Existing technology is out there to reduce the severity of concussions, and it would be a shame for sports to not start using them.

   Issues with current concussion policy can be seen in two recent NFL playoff games. In a wild card round playoff game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the New Orleans Saints, cornerback Keenan Lewis was visibly frustrated that he was not allowed to re-enter onto the playing field after he sustained a head injury earlier in the game. Even though he never re-entered the game league protocols establish that a player may not even stay on the sidelines in this type of situation, he must immediately be removed from the game for further evaluation. On the flip side of the coin, in a Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers divisional round playoff game, wide receiver Percy Harvin of the Seattle Seahawks took multiple blows to the head, but came back into the  game because he did not show true concussion like symptoms after those hits. Upon his return, he sustained another head injury, which was more noticeably a concussion.

   Both of these examples show that the concussion protocol creates a dilemma for NFL medical staffs who have to make a decision in the underlying grey area of how severe a concussion is. Even with the league’s new rules to prevent helmet-to-helmet collisions and unnecessary roughness, players still get concussions. It seems obvious that professional sports leagues need to dig into the root of the problem, which is the helmet that supposedly protects the players. Current helmets are proven to only provide protections against direct head-to-head contact.

   While football has helped taper down their concussion rates, it seems as though hockey and lacrosse have slightly higher concussion rates. In a study conducted by the Pediatric Injury Prevention, Education and Research (Piper) Program between 2008 and 2012, the number of recorded high school concussions measured by thousand athletic exposures (practices and competitions) were studied for each sport. The highest concussion rates were in boys hockey at 6.4 per 10,000 exposures, while lacrosse tallied 5 and football tallied 4.8 concussions per 10,000 exposures. These statistics seem logical given the hard ice surface and poor protective helmet design in the sport. It’s no wonder why lots of hockey players lose their teeth when few professional players are seen wearing mouth guards.

   But new technologies prove to be more efficient, such as the helmets that are currently being designed by researchers at the University of Florida. The research group is lead by engineering professor Ghatu Subhash, and his colleagues —neurosurgeon Ian Hegers and radiologist Keith Peters. Researchers claim the prototype is is a low cost solution. The helmet itself is made of non-newtonian fluids that are designed to squeeze into a second pouch upon impact, thereby neutralizing the force. The group’s new helmet prototype was demonstrated to venture capitalists on January 20 of 2014 . While it is not realistic to believe that any helmet is concussion proof, experts claim that helmets on the market only protect against linear hits, while the new helmet prototype protects against shearing rotational forces, which concussion experts attribute to be the main cause of sports related concussions.

   In addition, a separate group of innovators have created a wireless concussion sensor, known as the Shockbox, that immediately gives coaches and trainers data on that player’s helmet collision, to proactively help them detect for concussions. The device is designed to be attached in a player’s helmet and then wirelessly send collision data to an IPad it is linked to. This way the severity of a head injury can be determined by more than just a judgement call of the coach or player. The Shockbox is also a developing technology, but has already been used by high school teams, such as New Castle High School, Oklahoma.

   Last but certainly not least, there is yet another group of researchers from the University of Rochester who believe that blood tests could be used to detect for concussion on the sideline. The researcher have recorded data through dozens of tests that the level of the S100B protein emitted consistently rises to higher levels in cases of head injuries. The conclusion was that a rise in S100B of more than 45% is nearly equivalent to a concussion diagnosis, and easily distinguishable from physical exertion. If held to be true, doctors of professional sports teams could use a simple blood test on the sidelines to make their life a lot easier.

   Imagine if non-newtonian fluid cell helmet prototypes were eventually paired with Shockbox helmet sensors and blood tests on the sidelines of professional sports. What are we waiting for? Concussions remain a problem in America, and technology has historically been the cure for many problems. The NFL most certainly does not want to have to make another $765 million settlement with ex-players who had their lives ruined by a concussion history. Nor do fans want to cringe at head injuries in professional sports every year. In addition, parents are more weary to sign their kids up for such sports knowing the risk of concussions.

   The good news is that the NFL launched a $10 million incentive program for concussion research of September 2013. To me they should really be the first major sport to follow through. They certainly have the money. It seems like a no brainer.