Traumatic brain injuries (TBI) will affect over a million people each year and oftentimes their symptoms go unnoticed. In recent years, these types of injuries – specifically concussions – have been receiving a lot of attention and increasing levels of concern for players, coaches and fans of contact sports. Even President Barack Obama said if he had a son “he’d think long and hard” before letting him play the game.
The President also voiced concern about whether the NCAA was doing enough to help college players deal with long-term health issues that come from playing football.
With growing attention, many researchers have started focusing their efforts on head injuries. Specifically, they are trying to answer questions about what causes them, how to prevent them and how to treat them. North Carolina has been participating in this effort and consequently, some of the most influential work in brain injuries is happening in the Triangle. Some of the most extensive research to understand concussions is going on at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The UNC football team is just one of a small group of college teams that have implemented the “HIT System”. This system utilizes a series of helmet sensors that transmit hit information measuring impact severity and location to a computer on the sideline. The players participate in their usual practice or game and nothing happens until there is a big hit and the information is recorded on the sidelines.
UNC has been collecting such data for nine years, and researchers are starting to come to some conclusions about concussions. One intriguing discovery was that impacts that were occurring during helmets-only practices were, on average, more severe than those that were seen in games. This new finding is surprising since most people associate concussions with big hits.
The new information discovered by the UNC researchers can be used by coaches in attempts to make practices safer for the players and to help identify players that have suffered a serious head injury.
UNC will continue its research, however, the biggest challenge the researchers currently face is the relatively small sample size. The “HIT System” is too expensive for smaller colleges and high schools, which limits the amount and types of data that can be collected. Hopefully, with more research we will one day be able to understand the causes of concussions and be able to treat and prevent them more effectively.