Helmet sensors to monitor hockey concussions

University of Alberta researchers are hoping a tiny sensor placed on the helmets of young hockey players to help determine when they have sustained a concussion.
Researchers are fitting the helmets of 40 peewee hockey players in Edmonton with impact sensors. (CBC)

University of Alberta researchers are hoping a quarter-sized sensor placed on the helmets of young hockey players can determine if they've suffered a concussion.

The sensor, called a cranium-impact analyzer, records the force, duration, direction and time of any hit to the head.

A small light flashes if the contact was hard enough to cause a brain injury.

"The long-term impact of unregulated concussions can really produce some catastrophic effects," said assistant professor Martin Mrazik.

"We want to take a look at these players and provide immediate evaluation."

For a year researchers will monitor 40 players on two Edmonton peewee teams where the 12 and 13-year-old players are learning to body check for the first time. 

Nico Alucema, one of the players fitted with the sensor, has already experienced two concussions.

'Your ears just ring, you don't remember much'

"You wake up and don’t know where you are," he said. "You're just dazed. You can’t see much. Your ears hurt. Your ears just ring, you don't remember much."

Sensors will monitor the force of impact to the helmet of hockey players. (CBC)

After one of the concussions, his coach asked if he wanted to go back into the game.

And while Alucema refused, the hit illustrates why this research is so important, Mrazik said.

"Say you see a player take a pretty hard hit. Was it hard enough to cause a concussion or not? And so that's what we're looking at doing here."

Over the hockey season researchers will monitor the hits to the head to learn the relationship between severity of impact and concussion.

Eventually the researchers would use the data to set a concussion threshold in order to eliminate the guesswork about whether a player should be checked out medically.

The sensor would then be calibrated to light up upon any impact above the threshold.

"This takes the grey zone out and says, ‘We know you just suffered a significant hit to the head,’ and that would allow the medical staff to do an evaluation of that player.

"The goal is to develop a better way of determining whether a player has sustained a concussion or not."

Junior hockey's Saskatoon Blades are also part of the research, wearing the sensors throughout training camp.