Repetitive head impacts and safety among student athletes

March is National Athletic Training Month, and this year it is drawing to a close with two major conferences in Tulsa: the annual meeting and symposium of the Mid America Athletic Training Association (MAATA) – a regional conference for athletic trainers and allied health professionals – and the American Athletic Conference (AAC) Academic Consortium’s 2019 academic symposium, hosted by The University of Tulsa.

Repetitive head impacts

Several faculty members in TU’s Oxley College of Health Sciences are presenting their research at the two gatherings. These include Rachel Hildebrand of the Department of Kinesiology and Rehabilitative Sciences and Laura Wilson from Communications Sciences and Disorders.

During the past few years, Hildebrand and Wilson have collaborated on a project examining the effects of repetitive head impacts, such as those sustained by athletes who play hockey, football, lacrosse, soccer and other sports. A principal goal of their interdisciplinary research has been to see whether those impacts, in the absence of concussion, affect players’ physical and cognitive behaviors.

 

At the MAATA meeting, Hildebrand and Wilson are focusing on repetitive head impacts among high school and collegiate football players. “In addition to reviewing the literature,” Wilson said, “we will discuss the findings from two of our studies. These were designed to look at exposure to and effects of repetitive head impacts across a single football season. In particular, we sought to determine whether exposure to such impacts leads to acute or short-term changes in balance, reaction time or symptoms, such as headache, fatigue, light sensitivity, difficulty concentrating and irritability.

While the researchers discovered small changes, more work remains to be done to determine whether they are clinically/functionally relevant or merely statistically relevant. “Our next steps,” according to Hildebrand, “entail determining if those changes affect their actual play on the football field.”

Wearable technology

How their data are gathered is also part of the Oxley duo’s research. Hildebrand and Wilson’s primary focus at the AAC symposium is on wearable technology – for example, the Riddell InSite smart helmet system – for discerning the location and magnitude of hits to the head.

“Such technology helps us to detect possible concussions,” said Hildebrand. “We will be discussing several products that range from those that can be worn in a helmet, attached to a headband or worn as a mouthguard. Two of our main concerns with this investigation are reliability and feasibility of use.”

Making athletes safer

In part of their ACC talk, Hildebrand and Wilson also address prevention strategies and changes in the rules governing high school and collegiate football based on the most recent data derived from wearable technology. “As we learn more about the kinds of activities that place players at risk and understand more about the effects repetitive head impacts may have,” Wilson said, “we can start to work with our colleagues in the coaching staff and athletic training world to think about how we can modify practices to reduce players’ risk.”

Wilson pointed, for example, to a particular football drill that seemed to be a main cause of repetitive head impact exposure. “We were able to share that finding with the coaching staff, and they have modified the way that they use that drill,” she said.

Community partnership

This quest to make athletes safer has relied on a strong partnership with a local Tulsa high school. Hildebrand noted that the athletic trainer and coach at the school whose football players provided the data for their study were on board with their project from the outset and remain very excited by the duo’s findings.

“And surprisingly,” Hildebrand commented, “the players, too, have been really supportive and interested in the data we are collecting and what our findings mean for their future. Overall, our experience working with this high school has allowed us to really go deep and has encouraged us to see this as a societal change that is happening to affect player safety within football and possibly other sports.”