NFL will soon measure hits with sensors

October 18, 2012 6:42:56 PM PDT
The NFL has been cracking down on helmet to helmet contact and is committing major resources to study the long-term impact. We could see the San Francisco 49ers using helmets with sensors or mouth guards with sensors next year.

Nobody likes to see an athlete's career end because of repeated concussions. It happened to 49er Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young.

Stanford Cardinal receiver Chris Owusu suffered his third concussion in a brutal helmet to helmet hit. But, that hit was recorded by a special mouth guard which contains sensors.

The data is being included in research conducted by 49er medical director Dan Garza, M.D. and research assistant Rob Andrews at Stanford University. They showed me some head impact research from a different player, during a game.

"The arrows are pointing not necessarily to the hit, but where the force is coming to accelerate their head," said Garza.

Stanford is on the cutting edge of long term research and the NFL is now planning a 10-year study on the consequences of repeated head injuries.

"We want to have a way to understand how to measure the impacts that occur, not just from the concussions you see happening, but from what we call the subconcussive events, meaning the small little hits that go on," said Mitch Berger M.D. from UCSF.

Berger is chair of the neurology department at UCSF and he is on an advisory committee to the NFL. He's working with John York, Ph.D., co-owner of the 49ers, who is on the NFL safety committee. They tell me the NFL is getting closer to deciding on the best method to gather research on impacts to the brain ? mouth guard sensors or helmets with sensors.

"I think we may have the ability to put those into helmets or into mouth guards at the beginning of next season," said York.

"It's such a weird little injury, because you're not sure. You just, 'I think I'm OK,'" said Young.

"The brain literally sits in a pool of fluid, and it floats. So if you move the cranium quickly, the brain naturally is going to rotate and move as well," said Garza.

Garza says using mouth guards with sensors to study impacts to the brain can apply to a lot of sports.

"There's also soccer, lacrosse and field hockey. It allows us entry into women's sports, because there aren't a lot of women's sports that use helmets," said Garza.

Garza's study at Stanford is being funded by the Children's Health Research Initiative through Lucile Packard Children's Hospital.

Also, the NFL plans to donate $30 million to the National Institutes of Health to pay for research on brain injuries and other health issues. The league says that's the largest donation in its history.

And one more note -- Garza points out there are 3.8 million children playing contact sports, so we all need to talk a lot more about what happens to their developing brains.

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