Impact Sensors: A Missing Piece of Head Injury Programs
I agree with Duma on that point as well. Indeed, efforts to preserve the status quo and to make schools and sports clubs think twice about using impact sensors are themes I explored in a 2015 law review article, co-authored with MomsTEAM Senior Editor and practicing attorney, Lindsey Straus, in the University of Maryland’s Journal of Business and Technology Law. Our article was primarily about the role organizations such as NOCSAE play in setting performance standards for add-on safety equipment, such as impact sensors (it was our position then and continues to be our position now that standards for sensors should be set either by governmental agencies, such as the Consumer Product Safety Commission, or by truly independent standard-setting groups, such as ASTM International, and not by groups such as NOCSAE and the Concussion Legacy Institute funded, primarily or in part, by the equipment manufacturers whose products are subject to the very performance standards they set).
We also, however, addressed the concerns raised by Dr. Duma: that groups like NOCSAE, the NFL, and its players’ union, appear to have a vested interest in protecting the status quo, which, in the case of impact sensors, has put the brakes on widespread adoption of sensor technology, not because their use is unlikely to make sports like football safer (I, along with many experts, think it will), but for fear that it might open Pandora’s box by making it clear just how hard and how often players are getting hit, and scare off parents from letting kids play contact and collision sports. (Comments from the head of the Washington State youth football program in the August 2018 article in the Tri-City Herald discussed earlier in this article suggest, perhaps counterintuitively, that the use of sensors might actually assuage parents’ concerns about football’s safety). Is the current sensor technology perfect? No, it’s not. But, like Dr. Duma, and others, I believe that, in hitting the pause button on the use of sensors, the NFL essentially threw the baby out with the bathwater, and sent out exactly the wrong message about sensors.
The national organization for high school sports, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) did the same. While recognizing that impact sensor technology “continues to advance and improve” and “can now be used to look at impact forces in real-time, while the players are actively participating in a sport,” the NFHS appeared in a 2016 Football Point of Emphasis to its member state athletic associations to go out of its way to pour cold water on the use of impact sensors, not only reinforcing the status quo view that sensors were only “valuable as a research tool,” but warning players, parents, coaches and administrators “to be careful not to rely primarily on unproven technology to diagnose a concussion,” (never their intended use), “or even as a tool to decide if a concussion should or should not be suspected.” (one of their principal uses!).
Our experience at MomsTEAM Institute in field testing seven different impact sensor models over five football seasons, at both the high school and youth level, is that equipping players with sensors does not, as one critic has suggested, turn them into crash-test dummies. With appropriate safeguards in place to ensure that the privacy of the players is protected, and that access to the data the sensors generate is restricted to those who can use that data intelligently (such as an AT or coach), I continue to believe that the best way to refine and improve impact sensor technology, and educate players, coaches, parents, and ATs about their advantages, is, well, to use it. Sadly, the NFL’s decision to stop using impact sensors, combined with the NFHS’s negative stance on sensors, and fear instilled by NOCSAE that sensors attached to helmets might void the helmet manufacturer’s certification, appear to have set back the kind of widespread use many of us in the sports safety community have been advocating.
Despite the challenges impact sensor companies continue to face, the number of products on the market has actually grown since I began following their development in the early 2010’s. A March 2017 study in the Journal of Athletic Training lists nineteen impact sensors devices from seventeen different manufacturers, three of which were not yet commercially available. Since then several additional sensor products have been or are about to come to market.
Interestingly, both of the impact sensors which MomsTEAM featured in The Smartest Team documentary in 2012-2013– the Vector mouthguard sensor (then called the Hammerhead) and the Shockbox (then manufactured by a Canadian company, Impact Protective) – are not only still being manufactured, but are being used by more and more teams. According to Jesse Harper, longtime CEO of Athlete Intelligence (“AI”), the Vector is currently being used in helmeted sports such as football, hockey, and lacrosse by over 100 teams and 10,000 athletes from youth through NCAA Division 1, the most in the industry.
Not only does the Vector sensor measure the location and magnitude of each hit an athlete absorbs, sending the data to the sidelines via AI’s proprietary ESP™ Chip Technology, but because the data can be time-synched to the millisecond with video (which a 2017 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine recommends be part of a multi-modal, multi-time-based concussion evaluation process), it is particularly useful in evaluating and analyzing problematic impacts in real time.
By providing coaches with a “heat map” of each player’s head and their exposure history over different time intervals and in different situations (practice versus games, preseason versus regular season) the Vector also furnishes coaches with actionable insights (what AI calls “Coachable Moments”). Our experience with the Vector, as part of our Smart Teams pilot program in Grand Prairie, Texas in 2014 and 20145, was very favorable. We equipped one hundred 6- to 12-year-old youth football players boys with Vector sensors donated by AI; during practices and games, a dedicated member of our team monitored the sensors, and was able to provide the coaches with data which they used to adjust player technique to minimize impacts.
In addition to offering a new and improved version of the Shockbox helmet sensor (a miniature wireless helmet sensor for hockey, football, snow sports and lacrosse and more, designed to immediately alert parents, coaches and athletic trainers to high magnitude hits), AI has recently brought to market a third product, the Cue Sport Sensor, featuring the latest advancements in impact sensing technology and designed for use in both helmeted and non-helmeted sports. As someone who has long advocated a holistic approach to sports safety, what I find particularly attractive about both the Cue and Vector is that they are paired with AI’s Athlete Intelligence Platform to identify trends and improvement and for use as a teaching tool to build better, safer athletes. Future developments of the Athlete Intelligence Platform will embrace integrations with wearable technologies such as FitBit (from tracking sleep and nutrition to strength training) and external video feeds, allowing coaches to see the unbroken picture of each athlete’s status on the field, and their potential moving forward.