Can Science Save Football?

Can Science Save Football?

8:37am May 31, 2014
Dr. Joel Stitzel displays a specialized football helmet fitted with accelerometers.

SciWorks Radio is a production of 88.5 WFDD and SciWorks, the Science Center and Environmental Park of Forsyth County, located in Winston-Salem.

Recent football-related stories have exposed the prevalence of concussions and long term brain injuries. Participation in youth leagues may be declining due to this.

The internet is filled predictions of the impending foot-pocalypse; the decline of the NFL, as it erodes from the bottom up. In North Carolina we love our football, so we need to put aside the hysteria. There has to be a way to reduce the risk of injury while keeping the game alive. 

Thankfully, we have Science.  Good science solves problems through experimentation, observation, data collection, and an informed conclusion.  After that it needs to survive the scientific community’s peer review; a ruthless attempt to dismantle the research.

Supported by Childress Institute for Pediatric Trauma at Wake Forest Baptist Medical center here in Winston Salem, Dr. Joel Stitzel, Professor and Chair of Biomedical Engineering, and his team, are tackling the issue. Pun intended.

We call this program KIDS, its the Kinematics of impact data set. in this we study the impacts that kids are sustaining in football.

Staying within the guidelines of the scientific method, Dr.Stizel and his team first defined the problem.

Everyone is experiencing some level of risk when they’re playing football, and the key for us is to try to have a way to quantify that. before we did this study we didn’t know really what the exposure was even like for these kids. Particularly at the youth level and somewhat at the high school level. And thats the big question that we have. Is there any damage due to sub injurious impacts? we really don’t know if they’re receiving damage from playing in practice or playing a game. Thats one of the things we’re interested in understanding more about.

Based on observation of the players, Dr.Stizel and his collaborators developed a hypothesis; a theory that can be tested. Basically stated, they proposed that while many head injuries in football are caused by the acceleration of the head at the moment of impact, long term head and brain damage will occur as a result of a series of mild head accelerations, due to impact, over a span of time.

We have translational acceleration

With head movement in a straight line

and also rotational acceleration.

With head movement in anything other than a straight line. Each impact has a varied combination of the two types of accelerations.

And so begins experimentation and data collection. Dr. Stitzel’s team worked in collaboration with a team from Virginia Tech to develop a very cool data collecting football helmet.

 The HIT system, the Head Impact Telemetry system is sensor pack that goes up over crown of the head and to the crown of the helmet. and its got 5 accelerometers in it, those are devices that measure acceleration.

Similar to the one in your smartphone that tells it which way is up.

And the idea is that these are sort of spring loaded and they go between the helmet and the head.

When they’re sampled, they’re stored on the system in the helmet, And those impacts are transmitted over to the sideline. and stored on a computer. Thats the information we get later on to measure the impact.

Next the data needed to be analyzed and interpreted. of the things we did was look at exposure in practices vs. games. One of the things we found was that a half to two-thirds of the impact that kids sustain over the course of a season, they get those in practice, and not during games. And so, if you make changes to practice, you can really substantially decrease the exposure to impacts over the course of a season.

This research is ongoing, but when a conclusion is reached the group hopes parameters will be put into place for advanced helmets that better protect players in the long term. Also, some simple rule changes may lower the risk of head injury.

Right now its not published and not peer reviewed. We really haven’t had the results vetted yet, so there’s not much I can say about how conclusive we can be.  

If the results hold up, they could protect players AND become a resource upon which future science is built.

This Time Round, the theme music for SciWorks Radio, appears as a generous contribution by the band Storyman and courtesy of . 





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