Thursday, September 19, 2013
SAN DIEGO Concussions are a constant hazard in football, soccer and a variety of other sports.
A professor at San Diego State University has developed a device that could provide a more objective way to detect whether an athlete has suffered a concussion.
Coaches and trainers are taught to recognize some of the warning signs, but it’s not always easy to diagnose a concussion on the sidelines.
Take rugby, for example.
On a warm September evening at San Diego State University, members of the rugby team go through a series of brutal drills to get ready for the fall season.
When a coach blows his whistle, two players lunge at each other, grabbing their opponents shoulders, each trying to slam the other into the ground. In another drill, players run full blast into another player who's holding a tackling pad.
And if you think that is rough, you should see a game, where practically anything goes.
Training and conditioning coach Orin Catrett has played semi-pro rugby for years. In the heat of battle, he’s gotten his front teeth knocked out and torn up his knee. Not to mention numerous lacerations — and concussions? Don’t ask.
“Well you definitely get a little dizzy, see some stars sometimes, depending on the severity of it,” Catrett says.
Catrett points out even when a player suffers a concussion, he usually wants to keep on playing.
“This is one of the sports where we actually thrive on actually being very competitive, being very physical, and nobody wants to come out of a game in this kind of sport," Catrett explains.
And if you get your head knocked around a little bit, and you're reeling?
"Shake it off, get back up," Catrett says with a smile.
But here’s the problem. If a player goes back in too soon, they’re at higher risk of getting a secondary concussion, and that can cause irreparable neurological damage.
San Diego State exercise and nutritional sciences professor Daniel Goble has developed a device designed to reduce that possibility.
In the biomechanics lab at San Diego State, Goble tests his device, called B-trackS. It’s designed to precisely measure an athlete’s ability to maintain proper balance. Balance is one of the things that’s affected when a person suffers a concussion.
As an athlete stands on B-trackS, a squiggly line appears on a computer monitor.
“The green line is a representation of sway, so if he moves right, the line goes right," Goble says. "If he moves left, it goes left. And so, it’s just tracking how much he sways, and we know that the more you sway, the worse your balance is.”
On the sidelines of college and pro sports, athletic trainers do an assessment of players they suspect are suffering a concussion. They ask them questions, observe their behavior and measure their balance.
But the balance tests are highly subjective. Two trainers can come up with completely different results. One might keep a player off the field, while the other might let them go back in.
“So, what we wanted to do was create something that was objective," Goble says. "It took the trainer out of the mix. A device that could actually quantify the balance test by itself, come up with a number that anyone would get no matter who ran the test, and then we could be more confident that what we had was a good measure.”
Goble developed software that can interface with tablet computers to make the device easier to use on the sidelines.
Goble and his team are collecting balance data from 1,000 people. From that, they’ll be able to tell what normal balance looks like without a head injury.
“So you could compare somebody after a head injury to that normative database and figure out if they’re outside of what normal balance is," Goble explains. "But the best way to do it is to get their balance data before the head injury and compare them within themselves, pre and post.”
That’s exactly what Goble is doing. He’s using B-trackS to measure the balance of SDSU’s rugby team, before the season starts.
There’s already a device like B-trackS on the market, called VSR Sport. But at a cost of nearly $15,000, it’s out of the price range of most school and youth sports teams.
Goble wants to sell B-trackS for less than $1,000.
There are more than 300,000 sports-related concussions each year in the U.S. Dr. Shawn Evans, chief of staff at Scripps Mercy Hospital in La Jolla, says a device that could help reduce the risk of secondary concussions would be helpful.
"But there’s no substitute for somebody who comes off the field and says, 'I’m a little dizzy, my head hurts, I don’t feel quite right, I’ve got a little numbness,'" Dr. Evans says. "Or the person who doesn’t look quite right, doesn’t respond to their coach, doesn’t hear their name well, just doesn’t feel right to their colleagues. There’s no substitute for the insight there and saying, 'Let’s get that person out of play.'”
But what about preventing concussions in the first place? That’s hard in rugby, where players don’t wear helmets or any other protective gear.
Strength coach Orin Catrett says if you want to stay safe, stay home.
“There’s danger in everything that you do every day," Catrett adds. "No matter what sport you play, there’s always a risk involved, and that’s why it’s sport.”