By: Morgan Gaynor
The epidemic of concussions in contact sports is now familiar to most Americans. Medical experts have noted an epidemic of mild traumatic brain injuries (TBI) in teens and young adults who play football, hockey, and soccer. Professional football players face even greater risks, with repeated “microtraumas” to the head leading to grave problems like chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
This alarming trend has resulted in rule changes designed to prevent head trauma to defenseless players. While well-intended, these rule changes have not yet reduced the rate of TBI for athletes. This may be because advances in training and conditioning have made players faster and stronger than ever. Faster collisions on the court or the field produce greater forces on the body, negating any benefit from protective rule changes.
Fortunately, there is a glimmer of hope. Sports scientists are now experimenting with a type of protective collar which helps prevent one of the more common forms of brain injury.
The idea for the new collar came from the animal kingdom. Scientists used to wonder how rams can run into each other at full speed without suffering concussions. They also wondered how woodpeckers can drill their beaks into solid wood, jackhammer style, without suffering the same way. Those actions produce tremendous g-forces, far greater than those which produce brain injury in humans.
Careful study showed that rams and woodpeckers prevent “brain slosh” by reducing blood flow out of the brain. Specifically, these animals have evolved with the ability to tighten their neck muscles during these activities. This tightening of the muscles pinches the jugular veins and prevents blood from draining out of the head. The increased blood volume produces a “cradling effect” and makes the brain less likely to slosh back and forth during impacts.
Scientists took this approach to helmet design by designing a “Q collar” for the sides of the neck. The Q collar gently compresses the jugular veins of the person wearing it, preventing rapid blood flow out of the brain during impacts. This produces the same protective effect seen in the animal world.
Early evidence gathered from a trial of the Q collar was promising. There was a significant difference between the brain tissue (white matter) of athletes who wore the collar vs. those who did not.
As with most other scientific research, there were plenty of caveats. The sample size of the athletic group wearing the collars was small. In the long run, elevated blood volume within the brain produced by the collars could cause problems which nullify the potential benefits. And even under the best scenarios, it will probably be years before this research produces benefits in the real world.
Even so, it’s good to hear something encouraging in a medical field where so much of the news has been bad. We hope it leads to something which puts a dent in the sports TBI epidemic.
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