Canada·Q&A

Scientists work to fight concussions with safer equipment, diagnostics

The rise in concussions in football and other sports has scientists working to measure the impact of all those blows to the head. CBC science columnist Torah Kachur looked into some advances in helmet technology that may help cushion the impact of concussions.

With sports-related concussions rising, new technologies emerging to address issue

Concussions have ended the careers of many NFL players, but scientists are working to find new ways to measure, and prevent, the injuries. (Bill Wippert/ Associated Press)

Though they've long been an issue, sports-related concussions were back in the news this week, as Ontario became the first Canadian province to move toward legislation on young athletes and concussions.

And with the Grey Cup set to kick off on Sunday, football — a sport where players' heads can often suffer punishing hits — is on the minds of many people. 

The rise of concussion diagnosis rates in football and other sports has scientists working to measure the impact of all those blows to the head.

CBC Radio science columnist Torah Kachur looked into some of the advances in helmet technology, which may help cushion the impact of concussions. 

What's involved in diagnosing a concussion? 

That's challenging for medical professionals, as well as coaches and parents. Factors that may play into whether a concussion occurs include not just the strength of an impact, but also the location of the impact and how prepared someone is to get hit.

For instance, if you get hit in the back of the head by a soccer ball at your child's soccer game, but you don't see it coming, your neck muscles haven't braced, and you haven't clenched your teeth or tried to protect yourself.

But even though they may be more prepared for a hit, football players are suffering concussions at increasingly drastic rates, especially in the junior divisions. According to one 2014 study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, concussion diagnosis rates for high school athletes doubled between 2005 and 2012.

What happens to the brain when a concussion occurs?

Imagine your head as an eggshell, and the brain is the yolk inside. If you shake it or hit it or break it, the yolk is going to rattle around inside.

In fact, you don't even need to do that much severe damage — just constant shaking or many small impacts could rattle the brain around inside your skull and cause it to swell.

A concussion is literally a bruise to the head. Normally, there are membranes between your skull and the brain itself, called the meninges. But if a force causes the brain to impact the skull, it can get bruised. That means blood accumulates, swelling occurs and there's ultimately damage.

There are also more complicated ways concussions occur, because the brain is not composed of the same consistency of material everywhere. So when you give your head a shake, some parts move faster than others, causing shearing and damage.

The big worry is multiple concussions. That's when we start to see more of the permanent brain damage that some ex-NFL players, for example, have.

How can science help prevent concussions?

There's a lot of research going into protecting against concussion, mostly dealing with monitoring and helmet design.

Riddell, a major manufacturer of football equipment, says its helmets can help reduce the force of impacts on athletes. (Riddell.com)
For instance, helmets are designed now to basically shunt the force of the impact around the head.

They do this by limiting the amount of screws on the forehead panel. In fact, some of the panels and joints of the helmet are more flexible, rather than being stiff, to transfer the energy of a hit around the head.

So far, a few studies have shown that the new designs can minimize the severity of concussions. One in particular in the Journal of Neurosurgery suggested a new helmet can reduce the seriousness of concussions by 54 per cent.

But that raises the potential problem of giving players a false sense of security, so they don't use proper hitting technique but use their head more often. That, in turn, could lead to a higher chance of a concussion.

What about monitoring the strength of head impacts?

Since no helmet is going to prevent concussions, there is also a lot of work going into monitoring the impacts sustained.

There are also helmets that have impact sensors worked into them, which are connected by an onboard computer that can monitor the number of impacts as well.

This is currently being tried in college football, but is too expensive to put into place in every junior league.

Another example of new concussion-measuring technology is a strip of tape that gets attached to the helmet on the outside, which changes color as the player sustains impacts. In a sense, it acts like a litmus test for concussions.

The small band of tape weighs very little, and would attach to the outside of a helmet. It's composed of special nanoparticles made to look a bit like Styrofoam — but very small. There are holes or pockets in the material that, when distorted, will change color. 

The University of Pennsylvania's Shu Yang led the research team that developed the material. She explained that the strip changes colour depending on the degree of distortion. It starts out red and becomes more and more blue as the degree of impact becomes higher, or if the level of cumulative impact is high.

There's still some work to do to make sure it accurately reflects the link between impacts and concussion, but it promises to be a useful visible tool for parents, coaches and trainers to monitor impact.

Where is the science of football helmets headed?

Riddell, the major football helmet manufacturer, is now designing helmets specific to each player position. As they study the direction and location of the most frequent head impacts for each position, they may be able to tailor helmets to suit the need from that position.

Add that to all the extra monitoring and science being done, and hopefully someone can come up with a way to protect the players, while also preserving the game.

About the Author

Torah Kachur

Science Columnist

Torah Kachur is the syndicated science columnist for CBC Radio One. Torah received her PhD in molecular genetics from the University of Alberta and now teaches at the University of Alberta and MacEwan University. She's the co-creator of scienceinseconds.com.

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