Ask the Experts: How concussions are changing the game of football
February 01, 2013
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LEWISBURG, Pa. — Sarah Manoogian, visiting assistant professor of mechanical engineering, has studied thousands of collisions between football players. She discusses the impact concussions are having on the game, and what more can be done to protect the players.
Question: Are concussions in football increasing, or are we just paying closer attention to the situation?
Answer: In 10 years of collecting on-field data, there is no reason to conclude that anything about the sport has changed that makes a player more likely to receive a concussion. And while the exact number of concussions from football alone each year is unknown due to underreporting of the injury, according to the NCAA, the number of concussions in college football actually decreased from 2004 to 2011.
But as more people get involved with the sport, and fewer concussions go undiagnosed, we could see the numbers rise. Concussions are hard to identify. Unless it is a severe enough impact that the player loses consciousness, it might be difficult to identify a concussion. Players may not recognize the symptoms that they are experiencing and staff may not be able to identify an injurious impact from the sideline. New technology is changing that.
Q: Why is it so important to quickly diagnose concussions?
A: Depending on the level of the concussion, players need a certain recovery time in order to prevent a second large impact from happening while the player is recovering from the first. If the first impact is un-diagnosed, then the player could be at a higher risk of injury than other players on the field.
Accurately diagnosing concussions is also crucial to understanding exactly what parameters can reduce or increase the risk of a concussion. Researchers want to know how hard of an impact a person can withstand without it causing a concussion, and how light of an impact will definitely cause a concussion in an individual. For researchers to make significant conclusions regarding these parameters, data needs to be collected on hundreds of concussions.
Q: Do you think concussions in football can be drastically reduced, or are they part of playing a violent sport?
A: The increased awareness of long-term consequences of concussions has put pressure on coaches, players, officials, equipment developers and researchers to strive for fewer injurious impacts in football. Although football is a sport that requires players to come to abrupt stops, it is possible to change the way in which the player stops to help reduce the incidences of head injuries. Having hard and fast numbers on which changes make the biggest difference is something that will take time.
Coaches are working with players on how to hit and get hit without using their heads. Officials are working to enforce this on the field. When the head has to stop abruptly, it experiences a larger acceleration and therefore a higher risk of injury. By stopping other parts of the body and allowing the head more time to come to a stop, the risk of injury can decrease. If teaching players at a young age the appropriate ways to hit and get hit can reduce the risk of getting a concussion, then maybe as this generation grows with the sport we can see the total number of concussions decrease.
Q: What role does the evolution of equipment and technology play in how we deal with concussions?
A: One area researchers are really focusing on is helmet safety. In order to be certified by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE), helmets must pass a certain level on a set of tests. Now researchers are developing a new set of tests for helmets to rate how well they perform based on a minimum criteria, along with a series of additional tests. It is similar to the star rating a car receives based on its performance in side crashes or frontal crashes. Two helmets could pass the same test, but one might do better than the other. Researchers are trying to understand how these ratings correspond to head injury data from the players using the equipment on the field.
We also continue to improve the ability to get real-time data on players. One of the advantages of a system like the HIT System is that it can instantly notify the sports medicine team or a coach on the sidelines of any player who receives an impact over a given threshold. Unfortunately there is no magic number that indicates whether or not a player received a concussion. Each individual can experience a concussion at different levels of impact. However, real-time data can allow the staff to pay extra attention to certain players after a particularly hard hit, and help make sure they're not put back on the field too soon.
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