The key to limiting sports head trauma may be here, and it’s not a new helmet

Cameron Smith
Prep Rally

Generally, when concern about teen sports head trauma is discussed, critics focus on both the need for more proactive medical attention and improved sporting goods. Generally, the enumerated sporting goods advances called for focus squarely on helmets and padding, fairly obvious targets given their role in player-on-player contact in football in particular.

Now, one new biometric company feels it may have an answer that will help make it much more clear when a player has suffered a case of head trauma, and it doesn’t involve a new helmet or more or better padding. Rather, it focuses on the technology involved in the oldest and most common part of a player’s gear: Their mouthpiece.

As reported by The Times Record, the Middletown (N.Y.) High football team is currently testing new impact-sensing mouthguards produced by a company called i1 Biometrics. The mouthpieces were given to all the Middies players during early summer practices so that the teens could provide data for the company to analyze in its beta testing phase of the cutting edge devices.

If mouthpieces weren’t the first piece of sporting equipment you would pick to be primed for major technological advancement, you’re not alone. Still, early results have shown that the i1 mouthguards provide valuable information on the strength of head movement in all impacts during a game. The mouthpieces contain both an accelerometer and a gyroscope, which essentially records how much a player’s head twists during a hit.

The results the i1 mouthpiece records are then transmitted instantly via wireless receivers to a laptop on the sideline, allowing athletic trainers and coaches to immediately monitor how significant an impact a player has absorbed, both play-after-play and cumulatively across the course of a game.

While the full influence of rotational acceleration (the speed with which a player’s head twists) on concussions is not yet known, it’s generally accepted to be a major contributing factor to head trauma.

Naturally, the more data i1 and others collect on rotational acceleration, the easier it should become to piece out exactly what the force means.

The Middletown football team is among the first to test the i1 mouthguard — Flickr
The Middletown football team is among the first to test the i1 mouthguard — Flickr

Make no mistake: This real-time monitoring is a big deal. By providing instant data, biometric mouthguards could essentially hold athletic trainers and coaches accountable for ensuring that their athletes not return following an in-game concussion, a major factor in helping them avoid devastating head injuries beyond an initial concussion. Furthermore, by providing cumulative data on how much rotational acceleration a player has absorbed over the course of a game, the high tech devices could also help determine when to keep a player off the field to help limit his or her exposure to a concussion in the first place.

In the interest of pioneering data collection, the college football teams at South Carolina and Purdue will both use the i1 mouthguards for the entire forthcoming 2013 season. Like Middletown, the South Carolina and Purdue mouthpieces will be donated as part of i1’s pilot testing program.

That donation is no insignificant feat, given the costs of implementing the system. According to i1 vice president of sales Jesse Harper the entire biometric mouthguard technology will run approximately $3,000 for its first implementation, plus $150 per mouthpiece. And those mouthpieces are only expected to continue functioning correctly for approximately one season.

That’s no small consideration for cash strapped public school systems, many of whom are scrambling to find funding to continue playing high school sports in the first place. Still, if the i1 mouthguards or similar products from other companies can help save even a single life, few coaches or parents would balk at the price.

"The name of the game is safety. If we as football don't address these issues, football is going to die," Middletown football coach Billy Donohue told the Times Record. "That is really important. This is the future and everybody, I imagine, will be using this type of technology. It's all about the safety of the kids. Anything we can do to help that out, we're very excited to be able to pioneer this."

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