In 2002, Nigerian forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu was embroiled in a fierce legal battle with one of the USA’s most powerful sporting bodies. For years, the NFL had been suppressing research into mental health issues related to the repeated head trauma suffered by football players. Will Smith’s 2015 movie depicting the legal battle was met with mixed reviews and a tepid box office haul. Its subject matter is important and pertinent, though, with issues surrounding concussion still rife in the US’ favorite sport.
The NFL has a troubled history with mental illness in former pros, with reports of mental illness and death common, and the problem hasn’t gone away. Dr. Omalu’s research into chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) confirmed without doubt the long-suspected link between football and degenerative brain injuries. Only earlier this year did the NFL officially acknowledge the link, but since then the focus has been on prevention rather than treatment, and a host of wearables are being produced to measure head trauma. Globally, athletes across the world suffer nearly 3.8 millions concussions a year - wearables will by no means nullify the problem, but it will aid medical teams in detecting the condition.
Helmets are just part of the solution. Sports like football have begun adopting more advanced head protection, with MIPS - a simple but effective system for mitigating head trauma in collisions - being increasingly used in professional helmets, for example. But outside of advancements in helmets, developments of different types of impact monitors have also been promising.
X-Patch Pro by X2 Biosystems, for example, is an effective impact sensor that’s far less cumbersome than some helmet devices. The small patch can be stuck behind the ear to give real time data on impacts and allow coaches and medical staff to make informed decisions on the welfare of an athlete immediately after the event. Similarly FITGuard - a sports mouth-guard producer with LED light embedded into their products to display the relative severity of the impact received - is ramping up the distribution of its relatively affordable ($129 USD) device. FITGuard links with an app to provide real time insight that is tailored to each individual player, taking things like weight into account to better assess the risk.
Jolt Athletics’ Sensor is a small clip that attaches to helmets or headbands and also sends back real time information on impact to an app used on the sidelines. The range of 200 yards and month-long battery life are appealing, as is the relative flexibility. The company also claim that the clip can ‘filter out things like dropped helmets to avoid false alerts’ - the technology is getting smarter as it works its way into widespread usage.
The hope is that, with the variety of products available and the sophistication of the sensors and analysis used, medical staff across different sports will be able to measure the effect of collisions on athlete’s heads, identify patterns in what causes them, and respond accordingly to limit further damage. Acknowledgement of the link between contact sports and issues related to concussion is the first step, but now major sporting bodies will be able to assess a range of different sensory products, actively encourage their usage and avoid further scandal. CTE isn’t about helmets any more than it’s about aftercare - prevention is key.