We all know someone suffering from a concussion-related injury, but we might not realize it at first. Chances are, neither do they. Sports-related brain injuries have already reached epidemic proportions, and the problem is only getting worse. Technology is the only workable solution to this growing concern, and it’s up to innovative engineers to develop this technology.
Sensors built into helmets can measure and record any significant head impact and immediately alert those on the sidelines. They will also keep a record of each incident so that doctors can decide on the best course of action. For too long, concussion and serious brain injuries have gone unnoticed and untreated, and until now, little to nothing was being done to change this. Without the recent advances in technology, sports as we know them may well have ceased to exist.
Concussions are a serious issue in sports, and it is not just professional athletes that face this risk. It is a major issue for school children, too, often as young as 8 years old. Despite a tightening of rules to make many sports safer and advances in helmet material and construction, the concussion problem is only getting worse. Fortunately, technology is able to reduce what is rapidly becoming an epidemic.
It is not only in sports like American football and boxing that concussion is a concern. Soccer, basketball, lacrosse, hockey, and a number of other sports all see many concussion each year. Recent reports indicate that the incidence of concussion in sports has doubled in the last decade. The problem is getting worse, not better.
What Is a Concussion?
Despite the prevalence and seriousness of concussions, there is still much to learn. A concussion is a form of traumatic brain injury (TBI). The most common cause is as a result of impact to the head, but it can also result from indirect force that causes the brain to violently shake in the head.
A concussion can be mild to severe. The biggest risk is when it goes undiagnosed and repeat concussions occur, particularly when one is recovering from a previous concussion. Part of the challenge is that the severity of the force is difficult to determine, and concussions can be tricky to accurately diagnose. Concussion detection and diagnosis has changed very little over the years and is rather subjective.
A player does not necessarily have to be knocked out for a concussion to occur. Amongst other methods, pupils are normally inspected for dilation, balance tests are done, and cognitive clues are observed. Many coaches and sports personnel are not highly qualified or experienced regarding concussion, so missing the signs can be fairly easy. There is also lots of activity at sporting events, and it is impossible to see everything at the same time.
Another issue is the highly competitive nature of many sports, even at a junior level. This prompts many athletes to downplay their symptoms in order to get more game time. This is obviously extremely dangerous.
One of the recent statistics from Headway in the UK is that “there were approximately 956 ABI admissions per day to UK hospitals in 2013-14—or one every 90 seconds.” That does not account for the many that go undiagnosed or untreated. It’s alarming indeed.
Undiagnosed and neglected concussion or repeated concussion can cause long-term brain damage and, in some cases, even result in fatalities.
Clearly, something needed to be done.
How Technology Can Help
While modern technology cannot prevent concussions at this stage, they can certainly do a lot to help this growing problem. A number of companies and research facilities have been working on projects that can help minimize the impact of the condition and reduce the incidence of misdiagnosis and long-term damage.
Companies like InvenSense are developing motion-tracking sensors like the 3-Axis to better track concussions. As described on their website, “These sensors support a wide range of applications including motion UI, sports, and image stabilization. The family includes parts with on-board FIFO and a secondary I²C interface to support external sensors such as an accelerometer and compass.”
One of the pioneers of this technology is Riddell Sports Group. Founded in 1927 in Illinois, USA, Riddell was responsible for many sporting innovations, mostly for American football. Their most significant development to date has to be their Head Impact Telemetry System or HITS Helmets.
Using HITS technology, the Riddell SRS system measures, records, and communicates any serious impact to the player’s head. It is unobtrusive and can be used during training or fixtures.
The technology uses what Riddell call iMEMS Motion Signal Processing. It will measure all relevant aspects of the impact including the exact location, duration, direction, and degree of rotational, as well as linear, acceleration. Notably, it measures the impact on the head and not the helmet.
This information is stored for later analysis by medical teams, but more importantly, it is immediately wirelessly transmitted to medical and coaching staff on the sidelines.
The Riddell SRS system lead on to the development of the Riddell InSite, which gives athletic and medical staff greater instant insights into the severity and nature of the head trauma as it occurs. It also records data and serves as an alert system to better manage concussion in real-time. The built-in sensors are extremely sensitive and accurate and allow medical and coaching staff to make more informed decisions.
Riddell’s technology has been widely tested, and the results have been overwhelmingly positive. The Head Impact Telemetry System (HITS) technology employs six accelerometer sensors built into the padding of the helmet. The weight and size are negligible, and they are totally unobtrusive. Data is transmitted wirelessly and instantly from the helmet to a PC or mobile device running the associated software. It was initially developed by a research group from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and Dartmouth College.
Apart from the real-time alerts the system provides, there is much value in the historical data that is accumulated. Ideally, players will perform an initial brain behaviour assessment to determine a baseline. Comparing future tests to this, combined with data from the HITS, physicians can make more accurate recommendations and improve treatment.
Another helmet sensor technology system was developed by students from Western Michigan University and later developed into the start-up company SafeSense Technologies LLC. Their system relies on printed electronic pressure sensors fitted inside sports helmets. The system transmits head trauma data over Bluetooth so that medical staff and coaches receive more accurate and faster information regarding head injuries and potential concussions.
A slightly different approach in impact sensing technology comes from the Shockbox helmet sensors. They manufacture sensors that fit existing helmets for a range of sports. This design does, however, make them more susceptible to damage or disconnection from the helmet. Despite this, they do offer an effective alert system and are a more affordable solution for consumers.
There are, of course, other players in this technology space, and new developments are constantly improving the performance of these concussion sensors. They should be viewed as a supplementary aid and not used for the exclusive measure of head trauma and concussion diagnosis. They have already proved their value and will only continue to improve.
The other limiting factor at present is the price. Concussion sensor helmets and the related technology is expensive. As with all technology, it is likely to follow the principle of Moore’s Law and continue to improve in performance as the price comes down. Given the success thus far and the need for concussion detection technology, this scenario is highly likely.
The evidence that the concussion issue is serious is clear. The statistics are alarming and only tell a small part of the story. Turning a blind eye to the problem, as has been done in the past, is no longer an option.
Sports are a popular, powerful, and important part of society. It is not something we want to restrict. At the same time, we cannot blindly sit by while athletes, including children, sustain serious injuries that go unnoticed, undiagnosed, and untreated.
Fortunately, technology is providing a practical solution with accurate and responsive sensors that will immediately alert coaches and medical personnel to any significant head trauma. Furthermore, it will provide physicians with an accurate history of head injuries. This will reduce the incidence of long-term damage from sports injuries.
There is no doubt that sports will never be risk-free, but technology can go a long way toward mitigating those risks. If we get behind this technology, and engineers embrace it, it will only improve. This will reduce the suffering for future generations and ensure that we, as players or spectators, can continue to enjoy our favourite sports.