Technology to prevent brain damage resulting from sports activities

voetbal_hersenbeschadigingHeading the ball in soccer, getting hit in the nut with a hockey puck or getting tackled during football: all these things seem an innocent part of the game. However, more and more studies show that all these hits to the head do permanent damage to the brain, particularly when it comes to the long-term. The sports world is gradually coming round to this, but technology is developing at a faster pace. This year will already see the first applications that measure the impact of the ball and tell you whether it is not a better idea to go and sit on the sidelines for a while.

Impact and sports – a dangerous combination

In the Netherlands, there has hardly been any discussion around this topic. However, a heated debate is going on in the United States regarding the consequences of head impact during sports activities. Besides the obvious attention to head impact during high-speed sports (falling off a bicycle and hitting the pavement or biting the dust during alpine skiing), there is an increasing focus on field and indoor sports. This is because there are clear indications that regular hard impacts to the head (heading a ball during soccer, being tackled during football, receiving blows to the head during boxing) result in long-term brain trauma. In the United States, a lawsuit is even held for cases in which brain damage is claimed to have resulted in extreme consequences, such as depression or even suicide.

Regular soft impact just as bad as occasional hard impact

This not only involves obvious sports like boxing and football (collision sports), but also increasingly ‘regular’ ball sports, such as soccer and (ice) hockey (contact sports). In many cases, this does not involve directly demonstrable damage, such as the dreaded concussion, but rather a series of light damages that can be very difficult to detect.

Besides preventing impact (e.g. by changing the game rules and wearing protection), an important consideration is identifying the seriousness of the impact. Is a player allowed to return to the pitch or not? Two striking developments in the field of wearable technology provide an answer to this question.

Sensors under your helmet 

First of all there is the CheckLight, the result of a collaboration between sensor producer MC10 and Reebok, the sportswear manufacturer that was recently sidelined by the NFL. The tandem is introducing a type of bandana (courtesy of Reebok) equipped with various smart sensors (courtesy of MC10). However, the real innovation is that the bandana features a small light that uses simple color signals to indicate whether the wearer may return to the field of play or not. A yellow light represents light impact, while heavy impact is indicated by a red light. Reebok emphasizes that the new solution is intended for all athletes, and not just professional sportspeople. Another example of democratization in sports.

A sensor on your head

A yet more intimate wearable is the xPatch, a sensor by X2 biosystems. At a weight of 2 grams, you can attach this band aid behind your ear to allow for real-time communication with the coaches at the side of the field. X2 mainly caters for contact sports and has been exhaustively tested during games of soccer, lacrosse and football at American universities. 12 NFL teams are already using X2’s sensors, including the X2 mouthguard.

x-patch

The developments in impact measurement are taking place at a lightning pace. All this measuring is creating a new industry for providing feedback to measurements, from the simple light signals of Reebok and MC10 to X2’s gorgeous graphs.

I expect that this type of data — like, say, heart rate data — will become par for the course for every athlete who engages in contact and collision sports. Amateurs can check their own meters, while professionals can view the same values on a TV or second screen.

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