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New helmet-mounted sensor aims to combat the dangers of concussions in football

Published: Tuesday, June 4 2013 4:45 p.m. MDT

A football player wearing a standard football helmet. The Arena Football League has begun using helmet sensors in practices to indicate when the risk of concussion is at its highest.

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SALT LAKE CITY — During the final padded practice of the season last fall, Treyden Charlesworth wasn’t acting dangerously. He was just a typical kid playing the game he loved, and it was his turn for an ordinary tackling drill in the Wasatch Front Football League.

The 7-year-old doesn't remember anything about what happened in the drill, however.

That's because Charlesworth experienced concussion symptoms when his head collided with the ground after sustaining a legal, fundamentally sound blow.

“At first he was a little bit glazed,” said Treyden’s father, Tyler Charlesworth, a well-renowned Utah high school football official. “Then as we started dealing with him a little more, he was having a hard time (remembering) what day it is and what (his) brother’s name (was). He was taking a long time to process that information.”

The symptoms of concussions commonly include disorientation, dizziness, nausea to the point of vomiting and fatigue. For Treyden, the aftereffects of the injury persisted for weeks, requiring him to take frequent naps during school for recovery.

According to a study by the American College of Sports Medicine, Treyden’s incident is approximately one of the 300,000 sports-related concussions that occur annually in the United States. Because of undiagnosed cases, ACSM believes the actual number is seven times higher.

Dr. William Couldwell, chairman of the department of neurosurgery at the University of Utah, has been studying head injuries for nearly 30 years.

“A concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury. It’s defined as an alteration of consciousness or impairment of brain function from an acceleration injury,” he explained. “The problem that you get into, if you have too many of them, they can add up and cause brain damage.”

Recurrent concussions can induce life-debilitating complications with learning, vocal communication and movement while increasing the likelihood of dementia, depression and personality changes, research says. Despite concerted efforts similar to what the Wasatch Front Football League has instituted, which mandates a limit of two padded practices per week to alleviate head injuries, concussions continue without remedy.

“There’s nothing clinically that we do afterwards that is (proved) to mitigate the effects of a concussion in the long run,” Couldwell said. “That’s all an active area of research, but there’s nothing right now.”

The percolating controversy surrounding the dangers of head traumas associated with football is brewing. Is the game worth sacrificing your brain? Utah Blaze receiver Aaron Lesue, along with Charlesworth and many other reticent parents, say no.

“I’ve seen some players be affected by concussions and teammates that I worried about,” Lesue said. “I’ve always said that I’m not going to allow my children to play contact football until a certain age. I feel like in America, as a young kid, you’re taught that football is a tough game. That stuff just beats kids up a lot and doesn’t teach them necessarily the technique of the game. ... I feel like there’s a certain aspect that’s unnecessary.”

“To see your 7-year-old act the way he did and how long it took him to recover — if he doesn’t want to play again, that’s fine with me,” Charlesworth added. “How important is football when you can’t even think straight?”

Despite the inherent risks, football continues to be widely popular nationwide, and eliminating head injuries is impractical. But limiting the prominence of second-impact syndrome is an ascertainable goal, researchers believe. SIS happens when the brain endures another jolt while vulnerable from an original impact. A subtle force can potentially cause irreversible damage at this stage.

“The risk of the second impact is you don’t recognize the first one. People can have a concussion on the field and then there’s a priming effect,” Couldwell said. “So, if they get hit again in a defined period of time, usually in the same game or shortly thereafter, they can have a worsening effect from the second injury.”

To combat SIS cases, researchers are turning to a helmet-mounted brain sensor. The device, which alerts medical personnel that a player needs prompt evaluation for concussion symptoms, was used in an AFL scrimmage between Jacksonville and Orlando earlier this spring.

“Essentially it’s an impact sensor that’s placed on the back of the football helmet,” George Scott, an attorney with Brain Sentry, the company distributing the product to the AFL, said. “The sensor will detect whether or not the player has suffered an impact which puts (them) in the range of statistical danger of increased possibility of concussion.”

The sensor, which rests at the neckline, is not a diagnostic tool but an indicator. When active, it displays a green LED light. If the helmet suffers a significant impact (top 2 percent of hits) the light blinks red to inform trainers. Following ensuing evaluations, it can be reset, allowing the player to return to action.

“It’s a great step. I think anything that moves forward to help concussions is great for the game of football and particularly for youth football,” said Utah Blaze coach Ron James, who says he experienced “a few” concussions during his playing career.

“I’m all for it. Anything that makes the game safer and promotes players' health, I think is only a positive for the sport. Given the speed it’s played at and the size and strength of players, I would like to see them being taken care of at the utmost level.”

Couldwell agrees.

“This is relatively new technology (and) what we don’t know is the exact threshold of the numbers,” he said. “It depends on the magnitude of the hit, where the player was hit, and which part of the brain is getting the trauma. So, there’s variation and the research is still ongoing to evaluate what the magic thresholds are. But, I think (this) accrued first step, it’s a good one.”

Lesue worries the blatant exposure might encourage players to “hit guys harder” for bragging rights and despite safety measurements, players will be reluctant to announce injuries publicly.

James doesn't agree, however.

“I think once players are educated about it, they’ll be more receptive — only because they know that this is something that is beneficial not only for the longevity of their career but for the way they handle life after football," said James.

Informed of the device, Charlesworth is less apprehensive about allowing his children to buckle their chinstraps.

“Definitely,” he said when asked if the sensor made him more comfortable. “I think that would be a great asset on all levels.”

Football presents hazardous injuries far outreaching concussions. Many argue, however, that it also has the ability to groom youth and build foundations of hard work, camaraderie and overcoming adversity. Couldwell advocates for players and parents alike to not underestimate the severity of concussions. It’s acceptable to play football, but wagering health for a game is not, he says.

“You’ve got one head to last a lifetime,” he said. “You want to really reduce the number of times your head takes a hit. If (you’ve) had a concussion — take it easy. Don’t return to play quickly and make sure you’re 100 percent before you put yourself in a situation where you can injure yourself again.”

Email: tphibbs@desnews.com - Twitter.com/tphibbsDNews

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