Wearable sensors in helmets and mouth guards are giving young football and hockey players new hope in fending off traumatic brain injuries from concussions.

Every year, some 173,000 American kids are treated for sports-related Traumatic Brain Injuries, including concussions, signalling a 60% increase over the past decade. Most are young teenage males playing hockey, football and other contact sports, struck down in the prime of their playing careers.

TBI can cause mild to severe symptoms including cognitive impairment, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and even death. Approximately 5.3 million Americans are currently living with some form of TBI-related disability, says the Centers for Disease Control.

Even NHL superstar Sidney Crosby, captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins, endured four shortened seasons after taking two hits to the head back in 2011.

Are digital health sensors the answer to sports concussions?

In an effort to help amateur and professional players try to prevent TBI, several health innovators are embracing wearable technology as a possible solution. Not that these devices can prevent concussions—but they can signal when it’s time to pull players out of the game. And perhaps more importantly, tell parents and coaches when it’s time to head to the ER vs. waiting it out at home.  

Don’t play it down

Oftentimes, amateur and professional athletes are reluctant to leave a game, brushing off their head bashing hit as nothing to worry about or fearing a backlash from their teammates. Yet many athletes, coaches and parents are unaware of the damage that can be caused by concussions and what’s worse, they’re reluctant to seek help until it’s too late.

“Returning to play before you’re ready is dangerous,” Donna J. Romano, a physician assistant at Premier Orthopedic Surgery and Sports Medicine, PLLC, said in an interview with Medical Daily. “It can lead to a lifetime of problems. There are so many examples of brain damage throughout professional sports.”

How do these helmet sensors work?

These “head impact sensors" as they’re called, are small devices that are fitted inside sports helmets or other gear such as mouth guards to warn when a player endures an especially hard blow. The information is then displayed and transmitted via a smart phone to provide immediate feedback.

Parents and coaches can then decide when and if to seek medical attention, or if they need to head for the nearest ER pronto.

4 helmet sensors

  • Riddell, a leading maker of sports helmets, is marketing these head impact sensors in football helmets. The Riddell Helmet 360 “is the first helmet design using energy managing materials and a face mask attachment system that disperses energy of frontal impacts.”
  • Shockbox is marketing hockey, football, snow sport, lacrosse, equestrian and BMX helmet sensors. The sensors are attached to the top of helmets and provide immediate feedback via wireless transmission to your smart phone. The sensors rate the severity of the hit and advise when to seek medical advice, be it immediate or otherwise.
  • Reebok’s CheckLight is billed as a “sports activity impact indicator” that continuously measures the impact that athletes experience and provides instant feedback. The CheckLight is a soft fabric cap with sensors at the back. It can be worn underneath a helmet or alone.
  • The FitGuard is a sensor-based mouth guard, billed as a “head injury awareness mouth guard.” The mouth guard’s sensors aim to prevent players returning to play if there’s a high probability they’ve experienced a head injury. Sensors process the impact, shine a bright bold light indicating the severity of the blow that can be seen by parents and coaches and then sends the data to an app that can be downloaded.

Former NFL star and Detroit Lions Offensive Coach Sam Gash says digital health innovations such as these impact-assessing sensors are a positive, given his own experience on the field, and watching fellow players get injured. 

“Parents have to know what their kids are going through out on the field,” Gash says.

What to do if you suspect a concussion

Although digital health services like smart sports sensors can help detect possible TBI, nothing can replace good old-fashioned information and instinct.

The Centers for Disease Control recommends the following advice if you suspect someone you know has taken one hit too many:

  • Remove the athlete from play
  • Make sure the athlete is seen and evaluated by a health care professional who has experience in evaluating for concussion
  • Never try to assess the severity of the injury yourself
  • Record any information and observations that may be helpful to doctors
  • Coaches should inform parents about the severity of concussions and give them the CDC Fact Sheet
  • Keep the athlete out of play until he or she has been fully assessed by a professional who is experienced at dealing with TBI, including concussion

Holly Bridges, APR, is an award-winning copywriter from Ottawa, Canada. She is a former CBC Radio and TV journalist, author of “The UnHysterectomy. Solving Your Painful, Heavy Bleeding Without Major Surgery” and has a particular interest in the growing field of digital health and wellness. You can follow her on Twitter @hollybridges5 and Linkedin.

The nuviun blog is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues in global digital health. The views are solely those of the author.