Heads Up: New Technology for Understanding and Treating Concussions

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Last October, on a crisp afternoon, Natalie joined her team as usual on the soccer field ready to battle a challenging and offense-heavy rival high school. After the first quarter, Natalie was driving a ball down the field when she collided head-to-head with another player. Although she never lost consciousness, Natalie knew something wasn’t right. She learned she had suffered a concussion; and while she assumed she would sit out a few games, she had no idea of the new challenge that waited for her—recovering from head trauma.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the United States has between 1.6 and 3.8 million yearly incidences of sports and recreation-related brain injuries. Perhaps more alarming is that about 300,000 adolescents suffer concussions or mild traumatic brain injuries, each year while competing in high school sports. Over the last several years, experts have increasing concern over the effects of RHI, or repeated head impacts, which are smaller, but recurrent, head trauma that happens over a period of time.

A recent study by the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons determined that despite increased awareness and updated safety measures regarding concussions in high school athletics, the rise of head trauma incidents in high school sports continues. Studies of injury data from 2015 to 2017 showed concussion rates increased across sports such as football, soccer, basketball, wrestling, softball and volleyball.

The primary concern is that since adolescents have less cognitive reserve, which is a resistance to brain damage, than adults, a concussion may cause a greater risk for more severe symptoms such as memory issues, headaches, dizziness, confusion and extended recovery times. Parents, sports doctors and medical professionals want to reduce the risk and severity of concussions in young athletes. Ongoing research and new technology are always needed and the market is delivering. Here are a few examples.

Better Mouth Guards
Mouth guards have always been an important protection against concussions. However, some companies are taking a closer look at the technology and the role it plays in that protection. Prevent Biometrics, a company based in Minnesota, has developed a high-tech mouth guard that also serves as a head impact monitor. The monitor is designed to measure the amount of impact on the head, but it’s still flexible enough so that the athletes don’t experience as much interference as they play their sport.

The most common effort to reduce head injuries has been the use of helmets. While helmets were never meant to protect against concussion, they are effective in guarding against more severe head injuries. One group of researchers is using 3D printer technology to make a liquid crystal liner that can be embedded into sports helmets. These soft and pliable liners are showing excellent efficiency at absorbing impact from head collisions.

The Q-Collar
In February 2021, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized marketing of a new, non-invasive device, called Q-Collar. This collar is designed to be worn around the neck of athletes teenage and older during sports to help protect the brain from the effects associated with RHI. The C-shaped collar applies compression to the neck and increases blood volume to help reduce movement of the brain within the skull, which may occur during head impacts. The device may reduce the occurrence of specific changes in the brain that are associated with brain injury.

Brain Cooling
A “cool” way to treat concussions may be on the verge of use from engineers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where an associate professor of mechanical engineering led a study that suggests cooling brain cells soon after injury can help them better repair themselves. Since lowering the temperature of a person’s whole body taxes the heart and can have a negative effect on the immune system, researchers are still working on ways to isolate the cooling of the brain so that the rest of the body is not affected dramatically. Research is ongoing so doctors can eventually use the treatment in practice.

Faster Detection
The U.S. Army is backing a project to develop an mHealth wearable that can help identify concussions within four minutes. The technology, EyeBOX, focuses on detecting patterns of abnormal eye movement to help find a brain injury and assess the severity of it. The military project, aimed at using telehealth and mHealth tools to better identify concussions and treat those who’ve gotten them, can also be used in sports and for basic primary care.

Over the past several years, diagnosing and treating concussions has come a long way. From baseline testing for athletes to physical therapy programs, researchers and medical professionals are improving the chances of a full recovery from a concussion. Technology is leading the way to improving concussion care and prevention in youth sports. ■

Sources: q30.com, osrpt.com, sportsdestinations.com, aaos.org, mhealthintelligence.com and sciencedaily.com.