High tech takes on football

New technologies, from helmet sensors to improved turf, are being used to prevent injuries as the season kicks off. Photos: Tackling head injuries

Tech Industry
Last October, when the University of North Carolina's Tar Heels faced off against the Utah State Aggies in Salt Lake City, the opening kickoff sent one of the players--rather than the ball--into orbit.

North Carolina's kicker received a hard blow to the head during the play. Coaches and physicians could easily see the hit packed a punch, but digital pagers also sent a warning telling them to examine his condition further. Then they turned to a computer system designed to receive radio signals from six tiny sensors in the kicker's helmet to see the force of the blow, which was more than 100 Gs (for gravitational force).

Concussions--which can cause blurriness, dizziness and occasional unconsciousness--can occur in more than half of players hit with an impact of 98 Gs, according to research by the National Football League's research arm.

"Oh yeah, we pulled the guy. He missed about two and half weeks," said Kevin Guskiewicz, director of the Sports Medicine Research Laboratory at UNC at Chapel Hill.

High-tech tools like the so-called Head Impact Telemetry (HIT) System that the Tar Heels were using are becoming pervasive in competitive sports and athletic training. Coaches, athletic trainers and physicians are increasingly experimenting with new software and technologies to prevent injuries and improve player performance. This football season, high-tech advances will touch everything from artificial turf to the players' clothing and helmets.

The Tar Heels, for example, will have about 60 of 100 players wearing the helmets with internal sensors this season--up from 15 last season--as part of a five-year study on how and why concussions occur.

The technology, developed by New Hampshire-based Simbex and funded in part by the National Institutes of Health, is being sold commercially for the first time this year. Sports equipment manufacturer Riddell purchased the technology for use in its Revolution football helmets, and is marketing it as the "Sideline Response System." Ten college and high school teams, including Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Dartmouth University and the University of Oklahoma, will use them this season.

The HIT System is designed to detect any impact that occurs on the field and then alert personnel to the player who was hit. Often, blows go undetected and players continue when they shouldn't, potentially causing more problems.

helmet

Trainers and researchers have yet to pinpoint the origins of concussions, but the data compiled from the HIT System could eventually help them come up with new prevention techniques that could play a significant role in competitive sports. Players who have sustained one concussion are three or four times more likely to have a reoccurring problem with concussions, and many argue that famous quarterbacks such as the San Francisco 49ers' Steve Young and the Dallas Cowboys' Troy Aikman were forced to retire early because of repeated head injuries.

"The biggest problem on the field right now is that the medical personnel may not see the impact that causes the injury," said Rick Greenwald, president of Simbex, a 5-year-old company.

"It's too early to make the link between what impact and what impact location causes a concussion," Greenwald said. "But the data will give us a better understanding of what causes a concussion and if there are ways to prevent it via equipment, education or rules modification."

The system relies on helmets lined with six small sensors, or accelerometers, which are the same sensors that trigger airbags in cars. The accelerometers, which touch the player's head, record the acceleration and deceleration of the head during an impact. The system stores and transmits the data wirelessly, in real time, to a computer on the sidelines.

If the impact exceeds a preset threshold for that player, an alert will be sent to a beeper carried by sideline personnel. They can see, for example, that a linebacker wearing the number 58 sustained a blow of 80 Gs right after it happened.

Measuring core temperature
Radio frequencies are also central to another technology catching on in football.

In preseason training this year, the University of Florida, Ohio University and others, began using the "radio pill," an ingestible capsule used to measure the core body temperatures and heart rates of players and help prevent heatstroke. It gauges vital signs, stores them and sends them via radio signal to a computer on the sideline during play or practice.

pill

The system, developed by HQ, is formally known as the CorTemp Wireless Monitoring System. It includes a digital recorder that picks up and converts the signal of a player's core temperature within three seconds. One recorder can monitor between eight and 10 athletes at once.

The pill is the size of about two Advil. It passes through the body within 24 hours to 36 hours.

"The capsule has a crystal that vibrates according to the player's body heat and heart rate," said Susan Yeargin, an athletic trainer at the University of Connecticut. "Everybody reacts differently to heat so we look at the symptoms alongside other medical evaluations to watch for dangerous levels." Yeargin said that the typical temperature for caution is 104 degrees.

As with most high-tech aids, price can be a problem with the radio pill, because each pill costs between $30 and $40 and the recording devices cost about $2,500. For the University of Connecticut, which adopted the radio pill this season, it is too expensive to use with all of its players. As a result, trainers are monitoring high-risk players who may be overweight or previously exhibited heat problems on the field.

The radio pill actually was developed in the 1980s under a grant from NASA, which wanted to use it to monitor the body temperature of astronauts. HQ bought the patent in the 1990s and began manufacturing it for use in the research community. Scientists have used it to test and measure body temperatures as drugs interact in the body or during marathons.

Commercial use of the technology has come into favor by sports teams in just the last year few years, thanks to increasing safety concerns for large--some would say overweight--football lineman practicing in summer heat. Four years ago, when Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Korey Stringer died of complications brought on by heatstroke, that danger became all too real.

The Philadelphia Eagles and teams at schools including the University of Florida, the University of South Florida, Ohio University and the University of Notre Dame are using the CorTemp pill this year. The Jacksonville Jaguars are in their third year of using it. Next year, Virginia Tech, among others, plans to test the technology.

Improved technology is also finding its way into what football players wear and what they play on. For example, a technology known as UnderArmor is designed to prevent the natural but slight weightiness that players gain when they sweat into porous clothing and lose heat. UnderArmor takes sweat from the skin and evaporates it.

And covering many fields this season is FieldTurf, a high-tech synthetic earth designed to emulate natural grass and better absorb shock over regular artificial turf. FieldTurf has been around for nearly 10 years, but it has gained increasing acceptance on the field. The University of Florida's athletic trainer, for example, said that the school expects to replace its field next year with the artificial greenery. And at least 20 of 32 teams in the NFL have FieldTurf at either their stadiums or their practice facilities. FieldTurf is also in use at colleges including Nebraska, Michigan and Wisconsin.

The new artificial turf is made up of a polyethylene fiber that mirrors the texture of grass. The process of creating the turf includes making sheets of the fiber and cutting them into strips. Then a pattern of fibrillations, like a honeycomb, is cut into the fiber, which is then twisted. It goes into a tufting machine before being anchored into its backing. The effect is an absorbent artificial surface that's softer and less abrasive.

And just maybe, turf burn may become a thing of the past.

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