A New Weapon Against Concussion

Sports-related concussions are a growing concern in scholastic and professional athletics, as more studies have shown lasting effects from even a single blow to the head.  Concussions have also become a major concern for physicians, who are often pressured to clear athletes to return to play.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons user Patrick J. Lynch/Creative Commons

Earlier today, I heard a little about what is increasingly being deployed as a new weapon in the quest to learn more about sports-related concussions: the accelerometer.  Dr. Dan Garza, an emergency and sports medicine physician at Stanford Hospital and Clinics, and medical director for the San Francisco 49ers, discussed Stanford’s use of accelerometers in the helmets of football players and of female lacrosse and field hockey players. (Virginia Tech announced a similar program back in 2007.)

The goal: to get real-time data on what kind of hits these players are taking. During practices and games, the players wear mouthpieces outfitted with accelerometers and gyrometers “that measure the linear and rotational force of head impacts,” according to the Stanford news story on the just-initiated program.

It’s also rimmed with microchips that transmit the accelerational force (known as G force) data to coaches on the sidelines. Dr. Garza said the mouthpieces are a bit eery with their red glow. “They look like Christmas trees out there,” he told his audience, attendees at the American College of Emergency Physicians Scientific Assembly in San Francisco.

Dr. Garza shared a game film from the Stanford Cardinals’ contest against Washington State on Oct. 15 in which wide receiver Chris Owusu received what looked to be a helmet-to-helmet hit (story here). He dropped to the ground and lay there for a bit. On the sidelines, Dr. Garza and his crew received the data from Mr. Owusu’s mouthpiece. They determined that the force of impact was equal to 184 Gs.

That type of accelerational force is considered deadly (for more on G forces, see here and here). For comparison purposes, astronauts only sustain up to 40 Gs at launch and an Indy race car driver might pull 3 Gs in a tight corner. Forces over 100 are usually only encountered in motor vehicle accidents.

Dr. Garza and his colleagues will use the data in a wider study. In the Stanford release, Dr. Garza said the study  “will build toward establishing clinically relevant head-impact correlations and thresholds to allow for a better understanding of the biomechanics of brain injuries.” It may also help with diagnosis and subsequent management of concussions.

Stanford’s football program is being especially closely watched these days, as its quarterback, Andrew Luck, is considered to be a potential number one pick in the NFL draft next year.

The NFL recently announced that it would restart a long, broad look at concussion among its players.  The league has also bankrolled a head-injury program overseen by the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy.

As more attention has been focused on sports-related traumatic brain injury, Congress has gotten involved also. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee is having a hearing this Wednesday on companies marketing supposed anti-concussion equipment.

—Alicia Ault (on Twitter @aliciaault)

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Filed under Family Medicine, IMNG, Internal Medicine, Orthopedic Surgery, Pediatrics, Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Sports Medicine

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