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Smart Helmet: Preventing Traumatic Brain Injury in Football Players
September 11, 2013
3 Min Read
In late August, the National Football League announced that it would pay $765 million to former football players who experienced health issues related to head trauma. While football is a national pastime in the United States, this sport is associated with a variety of serious injuries. In addition to broken arms, twisted ankles, shattered femurs and other orthopedic injuries, football can lead to mental health issues for players who experience severe head trauma. In some cases, football players who experience recurrent head injuries may demonstrate symptoms similar to dementia or Alzheimer's.
In a study earlier this year, researchers in Virginia and North Carolina took a comprehensive look at how head injuries could impact children between the ages of 14 and 18. Through the use of neurological testing, brain imaging and biomechanics, researchers are developing tools that can show when a person has experienced a head injury severe enough to cause concussions or other brain-related injuries.
Every year, approximately one million students in the United States take part in football games. An estimated three million play in youth leagues. While physicians and coaches can watch for injuries in these young players, it can be difficult to determine the severity of a head injury.
"The younger that you get in football, the more people you have playing and the less attention paid to having medical personnel present at the games to assess function in players," notes Joe Stitzel, a study investigator and chair of biomedical engineering at Wake Forest Baptist University.According to researchers, repetitive concussions can increase the risk of neurological problems over time. Even head injuries that don't cause concussions can lead to brain injuries. However, there aren't many tools that can identify these types of injuries.
In the study, researchers studied a high school football team and two youth football teams from 2012 to 2013. Through the use of accelerometer-equipped helmets, researchers recorded a total of 16,000 head impacts. Players from these three leagues also received brain scans with MRI machines and a course of neurological tests. Magnetoencephalography was also used to study players' brains before and after the football season.
According to the study, the risk of a concussion was calculated based on the severity and frequency of head impacts. While most hits were below the severity associated with concussions, the total number of head impacts "can be the mathematical equivalent of two to three concussions," state researchers.
Eventually, researchers hope that this latest study can help improve player safety on the field. Since the majority of head injuries occur during practice, researchers believe that reducing the number of high impacts in non-game settings could mitigate the risk of concussions. In addition, accelerometer-equipped helmets could be used to determine when players need to take a break.
"I hope that one day we will be able to have a sensor in each helmet and come up with a metric that says ... this player has a chance of having an injury, they need to stop and have a battery of tests," stated one researcher.
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