The NCAA and the NFL have recently made the issue of concussions and injuries associated with head-trauma one of their highest priorities. Since the discovery of CTE, a degenerative brain disorder commonly found in former football players, the focus on safety has become paramount.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is known to cause dementia, memory loss, aggression, confusion and depression, which may appear within months of the trauma or many decades later. Until very recently this was undetectable in living players but was found posthumously in many former players showing the tell-tale symptoms. Players such as Junior Seau and Chris Henry were confirmed to have CTE.
Engineers are tackling this issue head-on with various approaches to increase player safety. See an excerpt from the Design World article below, focusing on the search for prevention.
Engineering and Concussion Reduction Therapy (CRT)
A concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury caused by a bump, blow or jolt to the head that can change the way the brain normally works. Concussions can occur in any sport or recreation activity. More than 750,000 mild traumatic brain injuries occur each year in the US, many during a game. If the injury is misdiagnosed, and the player goes back on the field, a second impact injury shortly after the first can lead to permanent brain damage or possibly death. But in the heat of a sports competition, such injuries can be missed.
What causes brain injury?
Any kind of blow to the head can cause a blood vessel to tear under the skull, causing blood to accumulate in that area that will gradually displace the brain — a life-threatening situation if not treated promptly. As the head whips sharply back and forth, the brain can pull away from one side of the skull and smash into the other side with sufficient force to rupture tiny blood vessels. The trickling blood accumulates in the small space between the brain and the skull, and the resulting pressure can lead to permanent brain damage or death if left untreated.
What treatments are engineers developing?
On a recent airing of Nightline (January 31, 2013), Concussion Reduction Therapy (CRT) was one of the topics. Critics and naysayers believe that there is nothing that can prevent concussions. However, one company has created a product aimed at doing just what it proclaims: reduce concussions. Unequal Technologies has designed liners for helmets that add more protection to one’s head from blows. Robert Vito, president of Unequal Technologies, calls the liner a “seatbelt for the helmet.” The lining is 1/8 in. thick, includes a layer of Kevlar, and the synthetic fiber used in bulletproof vests is under a green, rubbery layer. Peel the paper off the Kevlar side and the liner has a sticky side so it can be applied over existing helmet padding. The poster boy for CRT, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison, a dozen of Harrison’s teammates, and Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, use a set of these helmets inserts cutting the risk of concussions. Harrison proclaims that his concussion rate has diminished completely, since the use of helmet inserts. (After the Nightline interview, Unequal Technologies removed the label CRT from its packaging.)
Colorado Springs engineer Troy Fodemski, who specializes in microprocessors and minicomputers, imagined a football helmet lined with tiny sensors that measure the impact of a hit and then deploy dime-sized airbags to protect the head. Like automobile airbags, the helmet airbags would cushion the head during impact. Fodemski’s imagination led him to develop the “smart helmet”. This helmet uses sensors to measure a hit, compare it to a set of criteria, and deploy up to 75 airbags inside the helmet that would precisely cushion the area of impact, thereby stopping the brain from forward movement. This helmet is the first to use airbag technology.
The Department of Biomedical Engineering at Virginia Tech might go down in history as having made an important contribution to the game of football. Since 2003, engineering professor and department head, Stefan Duma, has every Virginia Tech football players’ helmets equipped with sensors. These sensors measure the number of collisions players are involved in during the course of a football game, as well as the severity of them. The technology was originally designed for soldiers in the military, but Duma immediately recognized the potential benefits for football players as well. The data is collected by the sensors, and then uploaded in real time to a computer on the sideline where it can trigger an alert, warning the team’s medical staff any time a player is involved in a major collision.
At a time when football is at it’s highest popularity the league is receiving it’s harshest criticism. Many are charging the leagues at every level to protect player safety at any cost. Engineers have an opportunity to work closely medical professionals, players and coaches to design and manufacture the products which will renew safety to football and guarantee it’s existence far into the future.