Saving Lives On the Gridiron-And Off

E-mail Barbara Goode

Football is a dangerous sport. But a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor illustrates that sensor-enhanced equipment is making the game safer. "New technologies aimed at making the sport safer for athletes are examples of how high-tech devices may spread throughout the game in coming years," the article states.

Monitoring Head Impact
Not surprisingly, most gridiron fatalities result from head and neck injuries. The article describes the HIT (Head Impact Telemetry) System, which incorporates MEMS sensors inside a football helmet. The sensors measure when, where, and how hard the helmet is hit, and send these data to a computer on the sidelines that alerts a coach or trainer in the case of a particularly hard impact.

Although the system runs about $60,000 for helmets, hardware, and software, several universities and even high schools are using it.

Not only does the system work to protect individuals in the moment, but developer Simbex maintains a national database in hopes of finding new insights on gridiron safety. According to the Annual Survey of Football Injury Research "data collection and analysis is important and plays a major role in injury prevention" and since 1931 has resulted in numerous rule changes as well as equipment, medical care, and coaching improvements. Now imagine the contribution that sophisticated sensing technology can impart.

Indicating Heat Stroke Early
In the past ten years, 26 young players—20 of them high schoolers—have died from heat stroke associated with football. "There is no excuse for any number of heat stroke deaths since they are all preventable with the proper precautions" says the Annual Survey of Football Injury Research.

"Symptoms can include confusion, vomiting, slurred speech, and staggering, but the condition can also manifest in more subtle ways, such as mental lapses on the field that coaches may attribute to players' lack of concentration," says the Christian Science Monitor article. The article tells the story of Korey Stringer, a Minnesota Vikings lineman who died five years ago when his core body temperature reached 108 degrees.

Today, the Vikings and others are experimenting with the CorTemp monitoring system, which consists of miniature "themometer pills" (swallowable temperature sensors at $40 or less) that wirelessly communicate with palmtop receivers in the hands of coaches and trainers. According to Frederick Mueller, a professor of exercise and sport science at the University of North Carolina and director of the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injuries. When a player's core temperature registers high, you can take him out of practice and cool him down—in time to prevent catastrophe.

Far-Reaching Effects
The work done by the Annual Survey of Football Injury Research has had a major impact on the sport. The Survey recommended the 1976 rule change that disallows the head as a primary and initial contact area. "This type of tackling and blocking technique was the direct cause of 36 football fatalities and 30 permanent paralysis injuries in 1968," says the Survey. In 2005, the number of fatalities directly related to football was just 3—though there were more indirect injuries.

More interesting, perhaps, is the application of such technologies to other sports and to endeavors beyond the sporting world. The Monitor article tells how Simbex is researching how the HIT system could be used to study head impacts in hockey, children's soccer, boxing, horseback riding, and lacrosse. And, it says, the Air Force is testing the system inside combat helmets like those currently used in Iraq.

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