By Dev Mishra, M.D.
President, Sideline Sports Doc
Clinical Assistant Professor of Orthopedic Surgery, Stanford University
- The GE/NFL/Under Armour Head Health Challenge is an extraordinary competition designed to produce radical improvements in concussion diagnosis, safety equipment design, and materials. I believe some of the technologies could find their way to the youth sports landscape fairly soon, and I highlight some of the projects below.
Our focus at Sideline Sports Doc is on youth sports, and specifically to focus on topics of interest to parents and coaches of young athletes. To start off 2016 I’d like to highlight seven very cool new technologies that have the potential to improve sideline concussion recognition for athletes in all sports, and to reduce concussion risk in football.
Collaboration between GE, the NFL, and Under Armour has been under way for several years, called the Head Health Challenge. The Head Health Challenge is a three-part competition amongst researchers and developers from universities, private industry, and the government. Part 1 of the challenge hopes to lead to methods of improved concussion diagnosis; the technologies are impressive but geared towards clinicians and are unlikely to make it to the sidelines of a youth club sport. Parts 2 and 3 however, have applications that in my opinion could positively affect every level of sport from professionals down to youth leagues.
The Part 2 winners were announced in December 2015; Part 3 winners are expected to be announced in the fall 2016. Here’s my take on the seven finalists for the Part 2 challenge, which focused on sideline concussion diagnosis and improved materials for impact absorption:
- Rate-dependent tethers developed by the Army Research Laboratory, Aberdeen, MD
What It Is: smart materials in flexible tethers connect the helmet to the torso. The materials are fully flexible at low speeds allowing for head movement during sport movements but they become rigid at high impact, reducing whiplash or rotational movement of the head.
Why It’s Important: there is increasing evidence that whiplash or rapid back-and-forth movement of the head is one of the main contributors to concussion. Techniques such as neck strengthening can reduce concussion risk, and an external tether would be somewhat like your airbag in your car inflating during a crash- the tethers would reduce the rapid movement of the head. Very early testing is now underway, and I see great potential for this technology even in the youngest age groups.
- Revolutionary football helmet design from the University of Washington.
What It Is: new testing underway to design a football helmet that can better absorb impacts.
Why It’s Important: Designs like this could be incorporated into conceivably any type of sport helmet at any age group.
- Viconic/General Electric shock-absorbing synthetic turf underlayer.
What It Is: a novel underlayer for synthetic turf fields can reduce impact when the head or body hits the turf.
Why It’s Important: One way to get a concussion is with an impact of the head hitting the ground. With more and more fields now made from synthetic turf, a field with better shock absorbing ability has the potential to reduce concussion risk. This technology also has great potential but I believe it will require very careful study as it may change risk of lower extremity injuries too (higher risk, lower risk, neutral risk- all will need long term study)
- UCLA and Architected Materials, Inc. are developing a new energy-absorbing microlattice material for improved helmet performance.
What It Is: a truly unique lattice structure material allows for shock absorption, improved airflow, and ability to modulate specific areas to reinforce.
Why It’s Important: This material has the potential to dramatically reduce impacts to the skull and brain and could be used in any application with a helmet. This could improve safety in the military, football, hockey, lacrosse, cycling, etc.
- Helmetless tackle training, University of New Hampshire.
What It Is: a back to the basics approach with a remarkably radical concept: if you teach proper tackling technique without a helmet and shoulder pads in practice, will it improve tackling technique during games?
Why It’s Important: this clinical study aims to get at the heart of basic concepts of muscle memory, technique, and psychology. If the researchers are able to prove their premise then I see every reason to believe their concepts could be used to teach proper tackling at every level of the game.
6 and 7. Two new methods for sideline concussion diagnosis: Emory University and Georgia Tech iDETECT system; University of Miami, University of Pittsburgh, and Neuro Kinetics Inc. I-Portal PAS System.
What It Is: each of these systems aims to utilize very subtle changes in neurologic function (such as eye movement tracking) to provide immediate diagnosis at the point of injury.
Why It’s Important: an objective, portable, and fast method of diagnosing a concussion would be an enormous benefit to trainers and physicians on the sidelines. This technology would take much of the guesswork out of concussion assessment.