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By Tina Hilding, Voiland College of Engineering & Architecture
With increasing concern about concussions from sports, some players have started wearing electronic sensors to measure head impacts.
But a new study by Washington State University researchers has found that some of the sensors for non-helmeted sports are not fast enough to measure hard hits and don’t accurately measure what are thought to be the most serious, angular hits. They report on their work online in the journal Procedia Engineering (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877705815014447).
“Concussions are a really challenging problem,’’ said Lloyd Smith, professor in the Voiland College’s School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering and director of WSU’s Sports Science Laboratory. “What we’re worried about is what’s going on with the brain, but we don’t have brain sensors that we can plug into. The closest thing is to see what is happening to the skull. That’s what these sensors are trying to do.
“The message is that you have to be careful with these sensors,” he said. “They may not work for every type of impact.’’
A ball is in the barrel of an air cannon before firing during testing in the lab.
The laboratory is the official baseball bat-testing facility for the NCAA and one of the premier labs in the nation for exploring the physics of bats, balls and, recently, the interplay of balls and the human head.
Most head-impact sensors have been developed within the past five years, and many college-level football teams have their players wear them. When a player receives a hard hit, the sensor records it and alerts trainers.
Researchers are also using data they’re collecting from the sensors to improve their understanding about sports-related head trauma. They have found that the helmeted sensors accurately measure hits.
Less commonly used are non-helmeted wireless sensors, which are affixed to headbands, mouth guards, adhesive patches or within an earpiece that the player can wear for sports like soccer, women’s lacrosse or softball.
In the study, the researchers attached the non-helmeted sensor to a head dummy. Using a pneumatic cannon, they fired lacrosse balls, soccer balls and softballs at it at different speeds. The researchers equipped the dummy with high-fidelity, wired accelerometers to collect data for comparison with feedback from the small, battery-powered sensor.
The researchers recorded 234 impacts, directing the balls at the dummy’s chin and forehead. Ball speeds were similar to those found in game conditions, although the softball was projected at speeds slower than seen in fast-pitch competition to avoid damaging the dummy. The soccer ball was only directed at the forehead.
The researchers found that the non-helmeted sensors aren’t able to accurately measure harder and faster hits, such as an impact from a hard-thrown softball. To measure the impact from a ball, the devices take a lot of measurements in rapid succession. The sensors were able to accurately see the hits from the softer, slower balls, but they couldn’t take data fast enough to keep up with the faster hits.
When the impact is harder, the sensor missed the peak acceleration, which would have the highest potential for causing a concussion.
“The harder the ball, the less correlation we found,’’ Smith said.
The researchers also found that the sensors did worse at measuring rotational than linear acceleration. Earlier work has found that most head injuries from sports come about from a hit that twists the head rather than a direct hit.
The researchers used a sensor with hardware specifications representative of most sensors of its kind. They are working with the sensor manufacturer and hope to do more studies that could lead to improvements. The manufacturer had no say in the study design or the interpretation of results.
“These sensors are one element in many ways to make sports safer,’’ said Smith. “I’m optimistic that people are taking these injuries more seriously, and I think it’s really encouraging in helping us better understand the effects and causes of concussions.’’
It was one sentence in an overall press release about how mouth guards can protect young student athletes from teeth injuries. Yet, it was also an example of misinformation out there.
A Houston, Texas dentist, Dr, Lynette Crouse, recently communicated in a press release the following: “Dr. Crouse said the mouth guards are ideal for children who participate in sports, but the practice also has created mouth guards for professional athletes. The mouth guards protect patients’ teeth better than over-the-counter mouth guards and reduce the risk of concussions.”
As we shared in the blog last month, Matt Gammons, MD, Second Vice President of the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, said the idea that “better helmets and mouth guards will prevent concussions” is a myth.
“Unfortunately there is no good scientific evidence that helmets of any type (hard shells, soft-padded or head bands) or mouth guards can prevent or reduce the risk of concussions,” he said. “Hard helmets can reduce the risk of more serious head injuries (bleeding, skull fractures etc.) and should be worn in high risk sports. Mouth guards can prevent dental injuries and should be worn for sports with a high risk of these injuries. Helmet-add ons additionally are not effective in concussion prevention and using these will generally void any warranties associated with the helmet. Risk reduction may be possible in some settings with rule changes (e.g. no hitting from behind in hockey) and behavior changes (e.g. tackling technique in football).”
More than 450 proposals from 19 countries were submitted to Head Health Challenge II, the NFL, Under Armour (NYSE:UA) and GE (NYSE: GE) announced today. The challenge will award up to $10 million for new innovations and materials that can protect the brain from traumatic injury and for new tools for tracking head impacts in real time. The challenge is part of the Head Health Initiative, a collaboration to help speed diagnosis, improve treatment and protect against brain injury.
According to site manager NineSigma, between September 2013 and February 11, 2014, when the challenge closed, more than 40,000 people from 110 countries visited www.headhealthchallenge.com. The submissions will now be evaluated by a panel of external judges that include leading experts in brain research and engineering solutions for training and protocols. Winners will be announced at a later date.
Specific focus areas for Head Health Challenge II include:
- Potential to improve the prevention and identification of brain injuries
- Monitoring and identifying injury
- Protection against injury or its consequences
“The response to this challenge demonstrates the global interest in brain protection,” said Jeff Miller, NFL Senior Vice President of Health and Safety Policy. “The number of great scientific minds committed to protecting the brain provides hope that we will see great innovations that have the potential to protect athletes in all sports at all levels. We are proud to work with innovative partners like GE and Under Armour to help advance science.”
“Striving to make the field of play safe across all sports is a world-wide mission, which has been demonstrated by the global response to the Head Health Challenge II,” said Kevin Haley, SVP Innovation, Under Armour. “We are committed to this cause and look forward to working hand-in-hand with the NFL and GE, reviewing the submissions and finding those innovations that can have a positive effect on all sports and help protect athletes at every level.”
The Head Health Initiative is an innovative four-year, $60 million collaboration to speed diagnosis and improve treatment for mild traumatic brain injury. The goal of the program, guided by healthcare experts, is to improve the safety of athletes, members of the military and society overall. The initiative includes a four-year, $40 million research and development program from the NFL and GE to evaluate and develop next generation imaging technologies to improve diagnosis that would allow for targeting treatment therapy for patients with mild traumatic brain injury. In addition the NFL, Under Armour and GE launched two open innovation challenges to invest up to $20 million in research and technology development to better understand, diagnose and protect against brain injury.
The first challenge launched in March and closed in July with more than 400 submissions from more than 25 countries.