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A Gopher football player holding a helmet.

Hi-tech helmets help U monitor concussions

By Rick Moore

November 13, 2007

For football players, a concussion is an insidious and sometimes unnoticed injury that happens frequently enough to be of major concern. Some blows to the head in games--and even in practices--arrive with the force of a car crash, and they have the potential to leave lingering effects.

Studies indicate that college players who have suffered one concussion may be more likely to suffer subsequent concussions, and sustaining repeated concussions could make players more prone to neurological shortcomings later in life.

In the National Football League, concussions have even halted careers. Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman's 10th concussion sent him to the sideline for the last time in 2000, and Miami Dolphins quarterback Trent Green is contemplating retirement after recently suffering a second major concussion in 13 months.

This year the Gopher football team has been equipped with a tool to help in the fight against concussions. The University is one of 10 colleges in the nation (including just three other Big Ten teams) who are using helmets embedded with sensors that detect hits capable of causing a concussion. Sideline equipment records the data and sends a message to the trainers, who are then able to check on the health of the affected player.

A HIT with athletics staff

The helmets are made by the Riddell sports company and use the Head Impact Telemetry (HIT) System. Six sensors called accelerometers, along with a battery, are embedded into a horseshoe-shaped pad that fits into the top of each helmet. A continuous feed of data to a laptop computer on the sideline shows each contact to the helmet, exactly when and where the contact occurred, and the force of the hit. The apparatus is used in both practices and games.

About three dozen Gopher football players are using the special Riddell helmets this year, and that number will grow to about 70 next year, according to equipment manager Darin Kerns, who worked in the NFL for 18 years (including stints as equipment manager with the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and helped persuade the athletics department to purchase the system.

According to head trainer Ed Lochrie, the sensors measure impacts by their G-forces. "If we get a hit over a certain amount of Gs, we go over and check out the person and see if they're okay," he says, adding that the sensors have been detecting one or two potential concussion-causing hits per day on days where there is heavy contact.

"I think that for those of us in athletic medicine, any tool that will give us additional information to identify someone who has a concussion is a good thing," Lochrie says. "We still have to do the evaluation, but it helps us identify people we might [otherwise] miss."

He says that the training staff has "a lot of tools" to determine whether a player has received a concussion, and an evaluation can include memory and balance tests, other physical tests, and a computer-based exam later on.

As of this writing, there had only been four concussions sustained by Gopher football players this season, which "is a lot less than normal for us," Lochrie says.

In this case, no news is good news, and both Lochrie and Kerns seem pleased to have another means at their disposal to ensure the safety of the Gophers football team.

"It's not a prevention tool," Kerns notes. "It's more of a monitoring tool, which is just as important."

"I think that for those of us in athletic medicine, any tool that will give us additional information to identify someone who has a concussion is a good thing," Lochrie adds. "We still have to do the evaluation, but it helps us identify people we might [otherwise] miss."