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Concussion Detection Problems Persist and Plague Player Safety

Will we ever tire of hearing about concussions in the NFL?

As long as the hits keep coming, it’s not likely. And the hits do keep coming.

The NFL recently announced it will not use helmet sensors next season, effectively halting one active effort to gain a better understanding of concussions. This, coupled with the still-imperfect process of sideline concussion tests, leaves us with concern about the future of concussion detection research.

According to the New York Times, the league suspended the voluntary pilot program due to concerns over its accuracy, but would continue to review and analyze the research it has already collected.

What did the sensors do?

The sensors relay information about the number and velocity of hits to the helmets. This information is then used to determine whether a player might need to come out of the game. The data could also indicate whether rules should be changed to make the game safer.

But concerns over the concussion sensors’ accuracy remain.

Kevin Guskiewicz, an expert on brain trauma who was coordinating the research, said the committee collected data on about 11,000 impacts during the 2013 season but had difficulty determining the location and severity of the impacts. The committee, he said, wants more time to determine if there is a better system available.

Sports Business Daily, which originally broke the story, said the results from helmet sensors measured direct, center-of-gravity hits on the helmets. However, tangential hits are more common on the field. The accuracy of the information from the sensors lessened with hits that were not dead-on.

However, it is not just about the sensors. Sideline tests are important too as the problems with concussion detection are not just about the discontinuation of helmet sensors. A recent ESPN article entertains the idea that sideline concussion tests aren’t effective, because nearly anyone can pass them.

The story interviews Lawrence Jackson, who essentially says the same thing: unless you’re really messed up, you can pass a sideline test. Jackson also guesses that players often experience a sub-concussive injury, referred to as “getting your bell rung,” that leaves players altered and vulnerable.

However, these players can usually still pass the sideline test, and won’t disclose their condition. The article estimates the reasons for staying silent can vary from a sense of duty and pride to concern about impressions from the team and management.

What needs to happen in concussion research

It’s estimated there was a 10 to 20 percent error rate in the data provided by the helmet sensors. The NFL deems this margin of error too wide to produce accurate information, but many disagree. Isn’t some information better than none at all?

It likely is.

Also, there is a more objective assessment that has been called “the holy grail” of concussion detection technology: a custom mouth guard that changes colors when concussion-related chemicals are detected in saliva.

This mouth guard could literally be the game-changer the NFL needs. Research is currently underway, but reliable testing remains in the distant future.

In the meantime, exploration of alternative detection technology shouldn’t stop. Whether it comes in the form of a mouth guard, more accurate helmet sensors or something yet to be invented, research must push forward.

Players and self-monitoring

While scientists and doctors work to advance concussion research and detection technology, athletes must also do their part. This means setting aside the fear, bravado or pride that usually keeps them quiet about injuries. They should report symptoms promptly and as accurately as possible.

There is still much to learn about the long-term effects of concussions. We know chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a very real possibility; just ask Tony Dorsett. So is early onset of dementia, which Matt Blair can attest to.

What we don’t know is how many hits are too many, or how to concretely pinpoint a concussion as it occurs and how serious it is. Dorsett said he “signed up for this” when he started playing football, and it’s true that lasting and serious injuries are a known risk.

However, the NFL should explore any chance to minimize the harm and make the sport safer should be taken. For now, that means players need to take the precautions currently available, even if they are not perfect.

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