New helmet sensors are helping high school football coaches identify students at risk for concussion by recording the severity each time a player is hit in the head during a game.
Concussions are causing increasing alarm in youth contact sports like football: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates between 1.6 and 3.8 million adolescent athletes experience brain injuries each year. An estimated 53 percent of athletes have suffered a concussion before starting high school sports, and 36 percent of college athletes have a history of multiple concussions, according to the Sports Concussion Institute.
In Newcastle Public Schools in Oklahoma last season, the football team began wearing flat sensors attached to the inside of helmets that relay to an iPad the level of impact of every blow to the head a player receives. It displays the direction of the hit and the magnitude of force on a spectrum of green to red. If a hit registers in the yellow or red range, the district athletic trainer will call the player out of the game and check for concussion symptoms, such as headaches, dizziness, confusion, and pupil dilation.
The sensors, called Shockbox impact alert sensors, were created by Impakt Protective, and cost about $150 each.
“With concussions, it can be hard to tell,” says Newcastle athletic director Dale Berglan. “If a kid takes a shot and feels groggy, we pull him out of the game. But there are a lot of times in a single play that you can’t see all of the impacts, like when a kid is in the middle of a pile and takes a shot to the head.
“This gives us extra knowledge on who received the impact,” he adds.
Nearly half of all athletes do not report feeling any symptoms after suffering a hit that resulted in a concussion, according to the Sports Concussion Institute. And athletes with undiagnosed concussions who continue to get hit in the head are at increased risk for cognitive impairment, and diseases such as dementia and Parkinson’s.
“Most kids don’t want to come out of a game or let you know they’re hurt,” Berglan says. “The sensors give us a heads up that somebody might have taken a shot.”
No other K12 schools in Oklahoma are using this technology yet, Berglan says.
Several companies are manufacturing sensors that alert players and coaches to potential head trauma. Another sensor, Brain Sentry, which is being used by about 100 youth sports teams nationwide, is placed on the back of helmets with adhesive, and flashes a red light when a player has a 25 percent chance of concussion after a hit. These sensors cost about $50 each when ordered in bulk.
Reebok has developed a light headcap, worn under helmets, available for about $150, which displays a yellow light for moderate impact and a red light for severe impact. The company recommends taking players who receive a yellow-light hit out of the game for a physical assessment. And companies such as imPACT offer computerized tests that players can take when pulled out on the sidelines, to measure verbal and visual memory, processing speed, and reaction time to help determine if the player has a concussion.
The dangers of concussion in football gained media attention after a lawsuit filed against the National Football League in 2011. More than 4,500 retired players allege that the organization hid the risks of concussions and failed to reasonably protect players from head injuries. They reached a $765 million settlement in August that will fund medical exams, concussion-related compensation, and medical research, a federal judge announced in August.