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Sensors Can Be The First Line Of Defense In Concussion Prevention

Sensors Insights by Mat Dirjish

What Is A Concussion?

Almost everyone thinks they know what a concussion is: a serious, but treatable condition caused by a blow to the head. Basically, that’s true, however there’s a lot more to the picture than a simple bump on the noggin.

According to the medical staff at the Mayo Clinic, “A concussion is a traumatic brain injury that affects brain function. Effects are usually temporary but can include headaches and problems with concentration, memory, balance and coordination. Concussions are usually caused by a blow to the head, however violently shaking the head and upper body also can cause concussions. Also, concussions are particularly common if you play a contact sport, such as football. Most people usually recover fully after a concussion.”

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Though somewhat more comprehensive, this explanation is still somewhat basic. In reality, a concussion is proving to be somewhat more serious in terms of both short- and long-term effects. A concussion is a traumatic brain injury, not to be taken lightly regardless of the severity of the symptoms, be they mild or severe.


What Causes A Concussion?

The most common cause of a concussion is the aforementioned blow to the head. Other causes can include sudden violent body motion, a twist or jerk of the neck, and falls. Certain occupations, sports, and daily activities are highly conducive for acquiring a concussion, such as construction work, football and baseball, and general home improvement, to name a few.

For most cases, a concussion is the result of a one-time accident. Treatment depends on the severity of the injury. Sometimes a hospital stay is necessary and other times, after seeing a doctor, the patient can go home. In both cases, however, the patient should be observed for any odd changes in behavior and/or physical condition. In mild cases, most recover quickly and can resume normal activities. Hopefully, the incident will not be repeated.

One problem is people whose occupations not only put them at risk for concussion, but do so repeatedly. The best examples are construction workers (usually the ones who feel they are too cool to wear the hard hat) and professional athletes, footballers in particular. During the course of play, a football player can acquire a concussion early in the game that causes no immediate symptoms and goes undetected by the game physician. This player continues to play, running the risk of a second impact that could turn the situation quite critical.


What Are The Symptoms of A Concussion?

In some cases, a concussion victim can report no symptoms, claiming to feel fine. Others report symptoms, but feel normal again in a few hours after the concussion, while others have symptoms for weeks or months. Symptoms include headache, dizziness, blurred vision, poor balance, inability to concentrate and/or remember new information, nausea and vomiting, difficulty staying awake, and difficulty going to sleep.


Treatment And Recovery

Not very much is involved in treating a concussion. Stated earlier, the patient, once evaluated by a physician may spend a couple days in the hospital under observation and rest, or sent home. In both cases, the patient needs to take time to recover. During the recovery period, patients need to get plenty of rest and sleep, avoid alcohol and recreational substances, avoid physically demanding and mentally taxing activities, and check with a physician as to when normal activities can be resumed.

You can’t just put a bandage on a concussion.
You can’t just put a bandage on a concussion.


Actually, the best treatment for a concussion is not to get one. This is where sensors can be put to great use.


Sensors Detect & Predict Concussion

There has been much discussion recently about the long-term effects of concussions on contact-sport athletes, football, hockey, and rugby players in particular. There are plenty of other sports that offer opportunities for concussion, but these three involve the most body contact and therefore are the most prone to seeing injuries. In the same token, these sports offer the most opportunities for innovation.

Football players are in constant jeopardy of receiving a concussion.
Football players are in constant jeopardy of receiving a concussion.


Sensors are one of the most valuable components available for detecting impacts that are likely to cause a concussion as well as other bodily injuries. The operative concept is "detect impacts" that could cause a concussion. Sensors cannot actually prevent the concussion.

Rugby players are even more susceptible to injury as they traditionally do not wear helmets and body armor.
Rugby players are even more susceptible to injury as they traditionally do not wear helmets and body armor.


What sensors can do is transmit data on a player who was just involved in a particularly rough play to a healthcare professional on the sideline. Sensors implanted in the player’s helmet and body armor and attached to wireless transmitter can send impact data to smartphone or other receiver that uses a software app to calculate impact and reference it various levels considered safe or indicative of a concussion. If the impact is considered significant, the team physician and/or coach can take that player out of the game for observation. Hopefully, the player won’t cry.

Should the player show signs of a concussion, he can be treated immediately and assigned to the proper rest period so as not to incur further injury from continued play. Once again, the sensor system cannot prevent a concussion; it can ensure a player at risk is not inured further. It can also indicate that play is getting rougher than it actually should be. Perhaps some corrective measures can be taken along these lines as well.


No Cure For Acquisition

Once again, there seems to be no true way to prevent, or even minimize the likelihood of head injuries. Of course, those at risk could be outfitted with numerous optical sensors that could detect impending impacts and warn the wearer to change location, a.k.a., get the hell outta’ the way. Success would still rest on wearers’ reflexes.

At the recent Medical Sensors Design Conference, significant discussion was given to the subject of using sensors to identify and track concussions. In a very insightful session, Assistant Professor of Rehabilitation Medicine at Weill-Cornell Medical College, and Director of Telemedicine and Virtual Rehabilitation at Burke Medical Research Institute David Putrino, PhD discussed how an accelerometer/gyroscope was used to track head injuries sustained in 40 professional-level rugby players across a full season.

David Putrino, PhD
David Putrino, PhD


The accelerometer/gyroscope system identified 20 concussions that were later clinically confirmed, compared with only three identified concussions using traditional observation methods. These findings demonstrate a strong case for the use of sensors in at least keeping a concussion from becoming a major tragedy. There have been numerous cases of concussion victims going untreated and suffering severe depression leading to suicide some years after injury.

For more information and gaining some of Dr. Putrino’s insight, you can watch a brief video of his presentation by CLICKING HERE.

Also, if you are attending Sensors Expo West in San Jose, CA, which there is no plausible excuse for missing, you can check out VP & Chief Technology Officer of Motus Global, Ben Hansen’s session on similar topics involving the use of sensors for improving performance and reducing injuries in sports. After that, prevent your chances of concussion by putting on that hard hat and/or learning how to duck …… fast! ~MD


About the Author

Mat Dirjish is the Executive Editor of Sensors magazine. Before coming on board, he covered the test and measurement and embedded systems market for Electronic Products Magazine, after which he spent thirteen years covering the electronic components market for EE Product News and Electronic Design magazines. He also has an extensive background in high-end audio/video design, modification, servicing, and installation.


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