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.