April 8, 2015
By Brad Muller | More Features
Concussions in athletics and their long term effects have become a hot-button topic in recent years. As part of the Gamecock Student-Athlete Promise, the medical staff for the University of South Carolina is trying out a new technology during spring football practice that can assist them in determining whether a student-athlete has suffered a serious blow to the head.
"Sometimes when guys have a collision, everybody hears it and sees it," said Clint Haggard, South Carolina football head athletic trainer. "There are a lot of times when guys are hit that you don't necessarily see it or hear it."
Haggard and the Gamecocks are testing out the Vector mouth guards from i1 Biometrics, which measures the location and level of each hit that a student-athlete absorbs, allowing for real-time assessment of the athlete's exposure to impacts sustained on the field. The mouth guards don't look all that different than the traditional "boil and bite" items that have been around for years. A small plastic piece protrudes approximately one inch from the front of the guard and holds the hardware to make it work.
"That has all of the accelerometers and all of your data recording components to it," Haggard explained. "That communicates with a computer that we have out on the practice field. It measures rotation and the g-forces. It measures both lateral forces and front-to-back forces."
When a student-athlete takes a hit, it will register in the mouthpiece. That communicates to the computer how many g-forces were involved in the impact. It also details what part of the student-athletes head was hit. If the level of g-forces registered by the device is higher than a predetermined safe level, athletic-trainers are notified and are able to immediately approach and evaluate the student-athlete on the spot, even if the hit did not look substantial from the sideline.
"When we see that number on the computer screen that a player had something like a 50 g-force, we can walk over there and look at him and make sure he is OK," Haggard said. "In the time that we have been using this in spring practice this year, I have already done that with several different guys. All of them have been perfectly fine, but it gives us the opportunity to walk over, ask them a few questions, and make them do a few things to make sure."
This data collection also allows medical staff to look at cumulative hits and forces impacted on a student-athlete which may not appear serious individually, but the sum total could be cause for alarm.
"Once practice is over, I can come inside and look and see that this guy had seven different hits that registered under the danger threshold, but all of those hits add up," Haggard said. "So then I can get in touch with that student-athlete and have him come to be checked out as a precaution."
These mouth guards have been around for a couple of years, and while the devices are an ever-evolving technology, Haggard is interested in anything that can protect student-athletes and/or provide information for their well-being.
"It's new, and it's still evolving," Haggard said. "I can't sit here today and say that a guy is going to sustain a concussion when he registers 50 Gs of force. Everyone's threshold is different. Multiple places are collecting data on this, and they can come up with an average where anything above a certain number will mean concussion is likely to have been suffered, but we don't quite know yet what that number is. It's still in its infancy right now."
We're always trying to make sure we are on the cutting edge and that we're doing the right thing for our student-athletes all of the time.
These mouthpieces are not preventing or even diagnosing concussions. Although they are not a perfect science, having another safety tool in place is good for the athletic training staff.
"We have five different things that we do to diagnose a concussion," Haggard said. "This mouthpiece is not a diagnostic tool, but if it's something that gives you more information, then it's a good thing. We had a player with one of these mouthpieces in special teams practice the other day, and he took a good hit. I looked over at the computer and saw the number and immediately went over to talk to him. He cleared all of our tests and was perfectly fine, but it was still good to make sure."
Not all of the student-athletes enjoy how the mouthpiece fits, and there currently is only one style of these. Haggard and others have spoken to the company that produces them about the preferences and comfort for the student-athletes in order to increase usage.
"When you educate the guys on why we're doing this and asking them to try these pieces, they're all for it," Haggard said. "They're concerned about what these injuries can do to them long term. Some guys tried it out, and didn't like it because they prefer a different style of mouthpiece. They respect what we're doing in trying to keep them safe, so some will want to wear them simply because we ask them."
While each mouthpiece can cost as much as $150 per unit, compared to a standard mouthpiece that may cost less than $5, Haggard said that if the student-athletes are willing to use the devices then he will do what it takes to have them equipped.
"It is a great cost," Haggard said. "But what is the cost when it comes to protecting your players? From that standpoint, if I had 85 guys that are bought in and told me that they would wear it, then we will buy it. We want to protect them and get this data from them. If we have 10 guys that want them, I'll buy it for them. I'm continuously talking to all of the guys on the team about using these. I would love for this to carry over into the fall. It's just a matter of continuing to educate the student-athletes and get them to buy-in."
From a healthcare standpoint, athletic trainers and other medical staff are always looking for the latest breakthroughs to assist them in treatment and prevention of injuries.
"Technology has evolved and the way we treat concussions has changed over the last 15 years," Haggard said. "Some of the evaluation tools have improved, but the ways we treat them long term, as well as some of our protocols, have changed. We're always trying to make sure we are on the cutting edge and that we're doing the right thing for our student-athletes all of the time."
Haggard and his staff also work to educate coaches about their efforts with the latest technology so that nobody is caught off guard.
"They want to keep the guys safe as much as we do," Haggard said. "They're all for us being on the cutting edge and keeping guys safer. As long as it's not hindering the players and as long as we're not having to constantly pull players out of practice to adjust something, then our coaches don't have a problem with trying new things."
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