Some Carthage College athletes this fall sported sensor patches behind their ears as part of an ongoing concussion study.
About 60 Red Men football players wore the devices during some 40 practices and 11 varsity and a handful of junior varsity games to gather information on direction, speed, force and length of each tackle or hit, officials said.
Concussion concerns have been in the news recently because of the Public Broadcasting System’s Frontline show, “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis,” that revealed how multiple concussions contribute to brain disease.
“It’s dangerous stuff,” said Jake Dinauer, Carthage’s head athletic trainer, of those injuries and diseases.
The study and sensor data would help in understanding what kind of, and how, impacts cause concussions, said study director Michael McCrea, an internationally known neuro-psychologist who is the director of brain research and professor of neurosurgery and neurology at the Medical College of Wisconsin. They also could strengthen trust in diagnoses and assist in the decision on whether a player should return to the field after being sidelined by a concussion.
McCrea noted the research might address the question of whether one heavy hit always causes a concussion or if the injury comes from many heavy or moderate hits.
Dinauer said the research also could help standardize diagnosis and treatment of concussions, which are handled differently by trainers.
“Concussions happen in every sport, and you can’t eliminate them,” he said. “The goal is identifying how we can keep athletes safe and reduce the long-term effects from concussions or the brain diseases caused by them.”
Sensor use next year might expand to the college’s lacrosse and soccer teams, McCrea said. He said while football records most of the athletic concussions, the other sports also have a high rate of brain injury.
Preliminary results of the project should be ready by 2014 and a final report by early 2015, said McCrea, who also is a neuropsychology consultant to the Green Bay Packers and a member of the National Football League’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee.
Dinauer said the Carthage players were reluctant to wear the sensors at first. Some of them worried that the sensor data would lead to them being taken out of the game.
But the sensor data wasn’t used to make decisions on managing concussions. That’s because of at least two reasons: Results aren’t certain yet, and not every major hit results in a concussion, Dinauer said, adding that Carthage uses balance, coordination and memory exams to help make concussion-related decisions.
“We treated the athletes like we did 10 years ago, before we worked with McCrea,” Dinauer said.
Dinauer said Carthage also worked with McCrea on concussion studies in 2008 and 2010.
Sensor use was one part of a three-year concussion research effort, called Project Head to Head, that includes some 2,000 male and female athletes in about a dozen sports at 10 high schools and four colleges in southeast Wisconsin, said McCrea. Some 200 athletes wore sensors.
McCrea said he applied for and received a U.S. Department of Defense grant to help fund the project. The department was involved because of military personnel dealing with concussions and their effects.
McCrea said he wanted Carthage in his concussion studies because the athletic training staff, as well as the players, were cooperative, interested and committed to the goals.
Dinauer said taking part in the study is “exciting” because its results could identify the best way to gather data and/or manage concussions.
“This is a terrific opportunity for our students, and it’s good to be affiliated with the research,” he said.
The circular sensors were attached behind players’ right ears, said Becka Owens, a Carthage sophomore from Barneveld and an athletic training major. She said the Medical College of Wisconsin hired her to download to McCrea the data stored in the sensors. Sensor results were sent to Carthage later.
Owens said study results will be important because there’s much about concussions that’s not known.
“They’re like invisible injuries,” she said. “You can’t look at someone and say he has a concussion. Concussion diagnoses are based on what a player tells us, so it’s subjective. Using a sensor means we’re able to put some data behind it.”
Owens wondered whether football was headed for extinction, given the research and reactions about concussions.
“Brett Favre even said if he had a son,” he’d be hesitant to let him play, said Owens. “I think this is causing parents to make a major decision on whether to allow their children to play football. Even a lot of athletic training majors here at Carthage say they wonder whether they’d let their sons play football.”
She also questioned the future of the National Football League.
“In the long term, research findings could jeopardize the sport,” she said, “if enough people think the risk isn’t worth the game.”
Dinauer didn’t agree.
“Other than the game changing to make it safer for athletes, I don’t believe football will become non-existent,” he said. “It’s not like we’re going to stop watching the game or that kids will stop playing it.”