Concussion Detection Programs Focus On Empowering Young Athletes

Local doctors and researchers are starting a new trend in head trauma prevention.


Weston- Wayland 7th grade youth football team members play every game with Checklight skull caps. So far, the caps have identified several concussions and the players have been treated accordingly. Photo provided.

Ten years ago, concussion prevention programs taught coaches to pull their players out of a game when they got hit on the head, which was difficult given the relative invisibility of head injuries. But now, doctors and trainers from the Boston area are changing their tactics by putting the power of detection into the hands of young athletes themselves. The hope is that by educating young athletes, providing them with the technology needed to track head injuries, and strengthening their bodies, the number of head injuries sustained by young athletes will decrease.

Daniel Daneshvar, a postdoctoral researcher at Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (often referred to as the “BU Brain Lab”) remembers getting hit in the head while playing contact sports when he was young. However, he never thought to mention those hits until he began studying head trauma scientifically. “Now I know that each of those hits were probably concussions,” he says. “And those hits can be associated with long term neurodegenerative problems.”

Daneshvar is part of a team of researchers and doctors at Boston University who are at the forefront of concussion research. Together with several other institutions, they have worked aggressively over the past ten years to bring the dangers of concussions into public knowledge. BU researchers have published several studies indicating that multiple concussions can eventually lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, which is a degenerative brain disease. Recently, the center also announced that they may have located behavioral indicators for CTE, which until now could only be diagnosed after death. Even the NFL has gotten on board by sponsoring studies of the brains of NFL athletes post-mortem to help determine just how bad head injuries can be for child and adult athletes.

During recent years, programs like the Boston-based Sports Legacy Institute of Community Leaders (SLICE) have popped up in almost every major city. SLICE, a program which was founded by Daneshvar in 2009 after he had worked at the Brain Lab for several years, focuses on teaching athletes the basics: what concussions are, what they feel like, and what someone should do when sustain a concussion. Programs like his focus on knowledge and engagement; they hope to teach athletes to stick up for themselves.

In conjunction with education programs, several companies have developed technological devices to assist athletes in identifying the severity of head traumas. Checklight, a soft sensing skullcap that can be worn on the head during contact sports, is the brainchild of Reebok and MC10 Inc. The cap can be worn with or without a helmet and is made of lightweight, latex-free mesh. Inside the mesh there are ultra-thin impact sensors that collect data during games. Each cap also has a tail that hangs down over the athlete’s neck. A green light constantly blinks on the tail, but if an athlete sustains a hit to the head that is above a certain threshold, the light turns yellow. If the athlete sustains a severe head injury, the light turns red.

The goal of Checklight is not to magically cure concussions, but rather to promote conversation about concussions. If an athlete sees a red light on their Checklight cap, they should get an assessment before they continue playing, which will hopefully prevent kids from toughing it out after they get hit. “We’re even seeing that athletes will avoid getting hit in the head because they don’t want to get pulled from the game after they get a red light,” says Elyse Winer, a MC10 spokeswoman. The Weston-Wayland 7th grade youth football team recently purchased the technology for every athlete on the field.

Local doctors and researchers like Dr. Robert Cantu, the BU Brain Lab’s co-director, have also started to recommend neck strengthening exercises for young athletes. In 2010, Cantu spoke with Fox News, saying, “It’s just straight physics. If you see the blow coming and you have a very strong neck and contract the neck muscles, you have a much greater chance of significantly reducing the forces the brain will see.”

Trainers at the Total Sports Complex in Michigan pioneered these exercises, which are now recommended by Boston Children’s. Director Jim Kielbaso’s program, which is slowly growing in popularity, was inspired by physics research done in the automotive industry. During mock car crashes, dummies with larger and stiffer cylinders under the head encountered less G-forces on their brain. If the neck is stronger during a hit, the head moves less and concussions – which occur when a force jars or shakes the brain inside the skull – are less likely to occur.

Daneshvar, Kielbaso, Winer, and others who are working to prevent head injuries in athletes all have a common goal in mind: individual athlete empowerment. Now that research has demonstrated the severe repercussions of multiple head traumas, concussion prevention programs are becoming a necessity rather than an option in most youth sports leagues across America. “We want to empower kids to be advocates for themselves,” Daneshvar says. “You could have the best, most knowledgeable coaches, but if kids don’t speak up for themselves, there are going to be missed concussions.”