Devices & Diagnostics

Just in time for football season, this helmet sensor sends a mobile alert when athletes are hit too hard

When it announced it was donating $30 million to the NIH’s Neurology Institute earlier this month, the NFL made a big statement about its concern for the impact hard hits could have on players’ brain health. The NFL is far from alone in its push to address head injuries in football and other sports. A […]

When it announced it was donating $30 million to the NIH’s Neurology Institute earlier this month, the NFL made a big statement about its concern for the impact hard hits could have on players’ brain health.

The NFL is far from alone in its push to address head injuries in football and other sports. A movement over the past several years has spawned new research, collaborations and products, including one that’s getting traction helping high school and college sports teams monitor the hits their players sustain.

Impakt Protective Inc. is a Canadian company using sensors to help parents, coaches and athletic trainers identify hard hits that could potentially cause concussions. The company’s Shockbox sensor, powered by a rechargeable battery, is installed with an adhesive into a football or hockey player’s helmet. It measures linear and rotational acceleration and sends data about the forces being applied to players in real-time to a smartphone, laptop or tablet using Bluetooth technology. A mobile alert is triggered any time a player takes a hit above 50 G.

High school football players sustain about 100,000 diagnosed concussions per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Concussions occur when impact causes the brain to move violently and suddenly, resulting in a range of ambiguous symptoms including headache, dizziness, nausea or blurred vision.  Kids who have concussions are more prone to catastrophic and long-term injuries, said Jonathan French, a neuropsychologist at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Medicine Concussion Clinic.

Impakt CEO Danny Crossman is no stranger to sensor technology or to brain injury – he’s a former bomb disposal officer who developed a helmet sensor for the U.S. Marines to record the impact soldiers sustained when bombs went off. He joined up with Scott Clark, a former software executive by day and hockey dad by night, to form Impakt in 2010. Their goal was to develop a simple and affordable helmet sensor for everyday use, he said.

Shockbox’s mobile technology, which retails for about $150, can connect to more than 100 sensors on a single handset and keep a history of head impact data for players that might assist trainers and coaches in making more informed decisions on the sideline.

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One thing worth noting is that the technology’s founders know its own shortcomings. “Concussions in sports has always been a problem and will always continue to be a problem,” Crossman said. “The need is that no one knows when they should start intervention.”

The problem with these kinds of sensors, according to French, who wasn’t familiar with Shockbox, is that there’s no universal threshold for head injury. “The second issue is that once sensor goes off, there’s still the need for a good sideline clinician who can do a thorough evaluation,” he said.

But that’s something Crossman and the Impakt team know, too. Shockbox doesn’t claim to be a concussion sensor; rather, it’s a tool to help coaches and parents avoid missed head injuries. “It’s kind of like CPR – everyone knows how to do it, but when someone needs it, everyone just looks around because they don’t know when they’re supposed to do it.”

And while some research has indicated that other factors aside from impact are at play in head injuries, Crossman said 50 G seemed like a logical place to start. “There’s a range that starts somewhere around 70-80 G and goes up to 100-110 G – that’s the area where there are most concussions,” he said. “We look at 50 G because in college level sports, 86 percent of hits are below 50 g. We’re looking for the exception cases.”

Shockbox, which is available in retail stores for use in football, hockey and snow sports, has gotten some traction. “We’ve only fully launched it about two to three months ago, and we sold out of our first manufacturing run.” It’s also the supplier of the East Coast Athletic Conference hockey league.

But it’s got some competition. Riddell, which makes the official helmet of the NFL, has a sensor-embedded helmet that allows for sideline monitoring on on-the-field impact, and the NFL is also reportedly testing BAE Systems’ helmet sensors developed for the Army.

Starting next spring, the Shockbox sensors will be part of similar smart helmets for football and hockey. But Crossman said the company will continue to focus primarily on youth and college sports, as high school teams often have one athletic trainer covering multiple schools, or maybe student trainers, and have more of a need for this technology.

Crossman wants people to know that Impakt isn’t smoke and mirrors, and that it underpins a lot of its work with research. But he also wants to make sure people understand the purpose of his product. “Brain-Pad just got slapped by the FTC for making false concussion claims – we’re very wary of that,” he said. “We are not a concussion censor. We just want to help them identify when a hit is too hard.”

[Photo from Impakt Protective Inc.]