Saskatchewan

'Misrepresentation of actual science': Professor skeptical about Q-Collar science

While two Saskatchewan football teams have started using a device aimed at reducing concussions, one researcher is throwing a penalty flag at the science behind the devices.

James Smoliga questions methodologies used to test product

NFL linebacker Luke Kuechly of the Carolina Panthers is seen wearing a Q-Collar. A North Carolina professor says the science used in testing the collars shows they're not as effective as they're marketed to be. (Adrian Kraus/Associated Press)

While two Saskatchewan football teams have started using a device aimed at reducing concussions, one researcher is throwing a penalty flag at the science behind the devices.

Players from Moose Jaw's Central Collegiate and Wynyard's Composite High School are using Q-Collars, a device which its manufacturer, Q30 Innovations, says "applies slight pressure to the neck which mildly increases blood volume in the brain to create a cushion that may reduce movement of the brain inside the skull."

Sask. Selects Football director Zeljko Stefanovic said 100 players from the under-14 and under-16 teams in his winter program wear the devices and tested them out during a tournament in San Antonio, Texas. 

"It was the first time we'd ever actually come back in San Antonio without having a single brain injury, which was huge for us," said Stefanovic in a recent interview.

The collars have also been used by Saskatchewan Roughriders defensive lineman Charleston Hughes and Winnipeg Blue Bombers linebacker Adam Bighill. 

But James Smoliga, a professor of physiology at High Point University in North Carolina, said the way the company behind the devices has portrayed them is a "misrepresentation of actual science" and isn't based on any "solid physiology."

Saskatchewan Roughriders defensive lineman Charleston Hughes is one professional football player who uses a Q-Collar, which is designed to prevent concussions. (Glenn Reid/CBC)

Animal testing may not apply to humans: Smoliga

Smoliga's main concern is that when Q30 tested the device on mice by dropping a heavy object on their heads, the force was significantly greater than what the average football player would experience in a game. 

"Basically it ends up being around 900 times the force of gravity," said Smoliga. "Football impacts, generally around 100 (times the force of gravity) is how much you need to get a concussion."

He also took issue with Q30's claim that the collars create a cushion in the brain by increasing blood flow to it. He argued the little amount of blood around the brain wouldn't have the sort of "bubble wrap" effect Q30 is claiming it would.

Joseph Fisher, a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto and co-inventor of the Q-Collar, disputes that claim. He said he's conducted research on jugular compression that shows the approximately 5 millilitres of blood that is retained in the brain can protect players. 

"It's sufficient to fill up the space (in the brain)," Fisher said. 

He pointed to what is known as the "slosh theory" - which looks at the impact of the brain sloshing in cerebrospinal fluid when it is impacted by a hard hit - to point out how this can help prevent concussions. 

"Once the space fills up, there should be no more slosh and there should be no damage to the brain," he said.

Collars could do more harm than good: Smoliga

Smoliga warned that football players who use the collars could fall victim to "risk mitigation," where they feel safer only because they're wearing something they think makes them "bulletproof." In reality, players could be putting themselves in harm's way.  

He said the collars could be "especially dangerous" for high school and college programs because players and parents might not understand the science behind the devices and are buying into them without knowing the risks.

"Because they're blindly trusting a company that profits from them using their product, they're putting their long-term brain health in a promise from this company," he said.

Fisher said the collar has been tested on humans in independent studies. 

One such study, conducted with 15 hockey players from St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, involved half of the team wearing the collars, while the other half didn't. The results showed those wearing the collars experienced less disruption in the brain. 

Greg Myer, director of research in the Division of Sports Medicine at Cincinnati Children's Hospital, performed the study in 2016. He said Smoliga's point about players being more reckless while wearing collars could also apply to other equipment.

"I think that's not quantified," said Myer. "We don't know how much a helmet changes that; we don't know how much shoulder pads change that."

More research required: Football Canada 

In an email sent to Football Saskatchewan, Shannon Donovan, Football Canada's executive director, said there isn't research that shows Q-Collars prevent concussions.

In the meantime, Donovan said there is "no justification" for sport organizations to purchase the device until more research is done to prove its effectiveness and ensure it doesn't contribute to long-term side effects.  

Q-Collars for high school football players, said High Point University professor James Smoliga, are "especially dangerous" because they may not understand the science behind them. (Campbell Collegiate/Regina Board of Education)

Instead of using Q-Collars, Smoliga said there are other ways to prevent concussions, such as changes to game rules or teaching players proper tackling techniques.

He cautions that people should do their homework before buying into the devices. 

"If people think that those (concussion) risks are now gone or severely reduced because they're wearing the collar, they're not making an informed decision," he said.

About the Author

Ethan Williams

Associate Producer

Ethan Williams is an Associate Producer and show director with CBC Saskatchewan, primarily assigned to The Afternoon Edition. Get in touch with him: ethan.williams@cbc.ca

With files from CBC Radio's Afternoon Edition and Scott Larson

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