Photo Credit: Tommy Gilligan
A few months ago, we featured a three part series on concussions in lacrosse (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) discussing what a concussion really is, why we should be wary of them, and what we can do about them. Recently, it was brought to my attention that college lacrosse is being used in a new way to study concussions over the long run.
Accelerometers like the Head Impact Telemetry (HIT) System have been used in a number of helmeted sports (especially football and hockey) to study the head trauma that athletes experience. These have changed in their complexity and usefulness but in brief, they measure the force and direction of hits or jolts to the head. They have been instrumental in estimating the cumulative head impacts that athletes sustain. For example, past studies have shown that college football players sustain around 1,000 sub-concussive head impacts per season.
Helmet sensors have also been used in attempts to track head hits in athletes to monitor for potential concussions – where if a forceful enough hit is registered, athletic trainers on the sideline are alerted (via a signal to a sideline device or an indicator that lights up on the back of the helmet) that the athlete should be evaluated for signs of a concussion. This use has been debated because it is difficult to set a specific threshold force that means ‘danger above, ok below.’
College lacrosse and accelerometers are finally coming together on a large scale. A study launched at Sacred Heart University (side note: they have some sweet lids this year) is monitoring head impacts with accelerometers for the entire season. Along with the sensor data, the study will utilize neurocognitive measures (tests of thinking and memory), IQ scores, mood assessments, and drug dependency screens to compare to impact data and any diagnosed concussions. Many of these factors have been shown to change after a concussion, and this study will examine how changes are linked to cumulative head forces as well, measured by the helmet sensors.
The hope is that this study will not only examine the team for this season but will be continued such that the current freshmen will be tracked for their entire four year careers, allowing researchers to come up with an estimate of total head hits that a college lacrosse player takes, among other things.
Furthermore, the group is collaborating with Towson University to determine if there are differences between Cascade and Warrior helmets using the helmet sensors and the other study data.
This is undoubtedly a very interesting and necessary study. It has been known that concussions, sub-concussive hits, and long-term consequences like post-concussion syndrome (PCS) and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) are common in sports like football and boxing, but more and more evidence is emerging to show the risk of these problems in other sports.
For example, Boston University and the Sports Legacy Institute recently announced the first identified cases of CTE in a soccer player and a rugby union player. Men’s lacrosse is obviously a high-contact sport with many collisions occurring per game or per practice, so it would not be surprising for CTE to be diagnosed in a lacrosse player sometime in the near future.
In the meantime, we still need to be cautious, attentive, and intelligent about head injuries. The National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA) just released their updated position statement on concussions that comments on the definition of concussion, evaluation and management procedures, and return to play guidelines. Included in the statement was the following table regarding staged return to play guidelines following a concussion. To clarify some of the stages, we have included some suggested lacrosse activities that correlate with NATA’s suggestions:
The guidelines above are meant to be a suggestion for the minimum return-to-play schedule, where if symptoms resurface at any given stage, that activity must be stopped and attempted again the next day or when the athlete feels ready. This relies heavily on the athlete’s willingness to report concussion symptoms – something we discussed in part three of our concussion series.
The bottom line is that concussions are going to continue to occur in the sport of lacrosse. There is probably not much we can do about that right now. It is not something that we as players should be scared of, but at the same time, there are things we can do to keep ourselves safe. For example, the motto “play hard, play smart” should always be kept in mind.
If you or a teammate experiences a concussion, speak up. Report it. Get evaluated and make sure you rest until all of those nasty symptoms have cleared up before you jump back on the field. Luckily for future generations, researchers are considering our sport more and more in light of this major health issue and are seeking solutions to the problem as we lax on.