Concussion Discussion: Measuring Sports’ Impacts

Jun 30, 2016

This past spring, the NFL acknowledged for the first time, that there’s a connection between players’ head injuries and chronic brain disease.  What’s followed is broader public acceptance of what many scientists already knew. Last year, researchers at Virginia Tech began the largest and longest study of football related head injury impact on the youngest players.  Robbie Harris checked in on the results so far and she has this report.  

Virginia Tech biomedical engineer Stefan Duma fits a helmet on a young football player

First year findings in the 5 year National Institutes of Health study show that some players are more likely than others to suffer head impacts during the game.

“Your best players tend to have more impacts because they’re your quarterbacks and running backs and they’re also your line backers and they’re people that are involved in every play.”

Concussion expert Stefan Duma is professor of biomedical engineering at Virginia Tech. He’s leading the study looking at 6 Pop Warner teams across the country of 9, 10 and 11 year olds.

“We have kids who go both ways at this level so it’s not like college or even some high schools where you have a specific position and that’s all they play.”

Researchers have fitted players’ helmets with special sensors that record the G-forces each time they take a hit to the head.   Duma says even though it’s now accepted that those hits can lead to problems…

“Of course, there’s a lot of questions.  We don’t know the genetic links. We don’t know how much is too much; How often, magnitude, durations, direction. So in order to make real scientific decisions we need to do the type of studies we’re doing where we track people for years and years and do the neuropsych test, do the imaging, do the blood bio-markers so we can really sort out, ‘OK, do this, don’t do that.’

(Sound of Pendulum hitting  a test dummy's special helmet)

Here in this testing facility at Virginia Tech, a crash test dummy, wearing a specially constructed helmet is getting smacked in the head at various speeds each time Jake Smith presses a button.  (Sound of hit) That one was about 45 Gs.

Jake Smith: “That’s about half of what you would consider the 50/50 risk of having a concussion.”

The test space looks like a cross between a torture chamber and a gym. 

Stefan Duma: “It’s all bout energy, so all of these devices are just about different ways of applying energy to the head.”

And they’re not testing only football helmets.  They’re doing all sports from soccer and basketball to hockey and wrestling. Duma points to a shelf full of different types of caps for soccer.

“ So we’ll put these on head forms and we’ll shoot soccer balls at them and they’re developing a new sort of rail system that will have a head to head impact and simulate when 2 kids are going up to ‘head’ a ball and run into each other,  and we can see what that looks like.”

Lab studies are one thing, but it’s the real world, real time measuring that will tell the real tale of head impacts in sports.  Virginia Tech is one of three universities picked by the NCAA to monitor all their collegiate athletes. They’re using special mouth pieces for women’s soccer and a tiny ear-mounted accelerometer piece for women’s lacrosse and hockey. These devices record impacts to find out how they affect the risk for the brain disease such as, Cognitive Traumatic Encephalopathy, the condition the NFL has acknowledged is linked to pro football injuries.

Stefan Duma: “C-T-E is getting a lot of press and people are scared of it and we need to be aware that it’s happening.  We also need to realize that almost everybody’s had a head impact and almost everybody has had a concussion in their life in some sport, some fall, something. So we need to realize that we can have a head impact and still have a safe and healthy life ahead. In fact, 99.9% of society is in that group. But we need to understand when you cross a threshold that you go into a more dangerous brain injury risk and we don’t understand that and that’s where the research is."

It will be another 4 years until the final results of head impact to the youngest players are in but things are already starting to change.  The Pop warner football organization announced it will end kick offs when the season starts this fall. And it’s already limited the amount of hitting during practice. These are moves that might help head off a future like the one portrayed in the 2015 Movie ‘Concussion.’ based on the real life neuropathologist, Bennet Omalu and his struggle with the NFL over his findings.”

“Concussion” movie sound: “If just 10% of the mothers in America decide that football is too dangerous for their sons to play that is IT. It is the END of football. Kids, colleges and eventually, it’s just a matter of time, the professional game.”