Every year, sports-related concussions affect several hundred thousand athletes - both professional and amateur. What's worrying is that despite advances in protective gear technology, the numbers are only increasing. According to CDC, emergency room visits relating to sports related injuries including concussions among children and adolescents, has increased by 60% in the last decade. While the fact that football and ice hockey players are the most susceptible to the head injury is not surprising, the high concussion rates in non-contact sports like lacrosse and soccer is certainly worrisome.
The good news is that concussions, which are described as “mild” brain injuries are usually not life-threatening. However, they are sometimes severe enough to result in permanent brain damage and even death. That is why impacted athletes should not be allowed to return to the field without receiving proper medical attention.
Surprisingly though, surveys indicate that a significant amount of student athletes -16% or more - return to a game right after sustaining a head injury.
To try and combat this worrying trend, Kirkland, Washington, based i1 Biometrics has devised a smart mouthguard. Called Vector, it looks and feels just like a normal mouthguard, except for one thing - it is fitted with advanced accelerometers and gyroscopes, which can wirelessly relay information from the mouthpiece to a computer program that can run on a tablet or smartphone.
Because the Vector mouthguard is attached to the upper jaw, it accurately measures skull movement and the acceleration and deceleration of the brain during impact and transmits an alert each time a player is hit, informing the coach of his/her name, the G-force and location of the injury.
In addition, the coaches also receive a 3D rendering of the player's head with the impact details. This allows them to closely monitor the athletes that are sustaining the most hits during a game and also help correct their form, like if they are using the crown of their helmets to tackle - a strategy that is both unsafe and illegal in football. Additionally, the data gathered is also useful to help the continuing studies on enhancing the safety of the sport.
The Vector Mouthguard is currently being tested by twenty players on Louisiana State University's football team. While the program is still in its initial stages, Jack Marucci, the director of athletic training is happy with the accuracy and the data he receives from this smart device. He plans to send a full report of his team's findings to the NCAA, in hopes of reducing injuries at the fall camp "two-a-day" practices, which are known for hard-hitting tactics. Senior associate athletic trainer Shelley Mullenix concurs, describing the alerts from the mouthguard, as a "second set of eyes."
If all goes well in this final phase of testing, Vector Mouthguards will be in stores by fall 2015. Priced at $199 USD, the device is not cheap, but it is a small price to pay to protect players from life-threatening injuries. Besides, it is extremely durable, which means that most high school players will only need to buy it once! The best news is that will be available in various sizes so that even athletes as young as 12, can be protected.
i1 Biometrics is not the only company that has come up with a smart mouthguard. Arizona State University football players Anthony Gonzales and Bob Merriman, are also working on a prototype. Called FITGuard, it is designed to indicate when a blow to the head is serious enough to warrant further attention. The device is fitted with a green LED strip on the front that turns blue when it detects a medium force impact and red when there is an above-50 percent chance the athlete has suffered a concussion. The data sent by FITGuard can be downloaded on to an app for the trainers to analyze and decide on the best course of action.
Though mouthguards are currently worn primarily by athletes involved in contact sports, there is no reason why they can't be used to monitor the increasing injury rates for soccer and basketball players. Hopefully, these smart devices will encourage more athletes to start thinking about wearing the mouthpieces.