April 14, 2011

Helmet research aims to lessen the blow for football players

Each year in the United States, athletes receive 1.6 million to 3.8 million sports-related concussions, according to Joel Stitzel, director of the Center for Injury Biomechanics at Wake Forest University and Virginia Tech.

Such concussions can have serious effects, including the development of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a condition that has plagued more and more former football players. CET causes memory loss, confusion, aggression and depression – and its emergence has led a growing list of NFL players to pledge their brain tissue for research after their death.

To understand how hits cause concussions on the field, Stitzel and his team are using helmet monitors that measure the severity, location and angle of every hit to the head involving a football player during practice and games. That data, he said, could help teams figure out how to play a safer game – and stave off the development of the conditions associated with persistent head trauma being found in professional football players today.

Stitzel’s research into head trauma in college football players could have a particular impact on African American student-athletes. Research so far has shown that defensive and offensive linemen have the highest rate of injury. And rosters from the NFL’s 2008 season show that African Americans make up half the offensive line and about 70 percent of the defensive line. They’re subject to most of the hits.

“When you start to look at these numbers and you begin to look at who’s on the playing field, you see how important this information is,” said Earl Smith, co-coordinator of Losing to Win.

The Center for Injury Biomechanics team is collecting data from players at their schools, plus Ohio University, University of North Carolina, Dartmouth and Brown.

To explain the effect of head injuries such as concussion on the football field, Stitzel shows game footage. In one video, a player returns to the field after a hit. The player stands in the wrong position, and several of his teammates tell him to get in the game, get into position. On the sidelines afterward, he tells the coach he doesn’t remember running the play he just ran.

Stitzel’s mission is to anticipate such injuries – then figure out ways to prevent them or lessen their severity. -- Alicia Roberts

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