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Can concussion sensors protect rugby players from the long-term impact of collisions?

Earlier this year in a match against London Irish, Saracens players took to the field wearing impact sensors taped to their ears as part of a programme designed to give a better understanding of the long-term effects of concussion.

Two trends seem to be in evidence here: the use of wearable tech to help monitor player performance and wellbeing, as well as a wider realisation across rugby that the effects of concussion need to be taken seriously for the good of players at all levels of the sport.  

Can sensor technology help to give us a better understanding of concussion? How might it fit in with existing measures designed to safeguard players? We take a look…

Concussion sensors: how do they work?

The discrete ‘X Patch’ worn by Saracens players was developed by Seattle-based company, X2 Biosystems. Consisting of multiple sensors with the ability to measure rotation, tilt, movement and speed, these sensors are designed to deliver to the end user “rich, accurate head impact and injury data,” including information on the location, nature, strength and frequency of collisions.

Who is this data for?

The technology is designed to deliver information to coaches and medical staff during matches concerning the head impacts their players are being subjected to. More widely, especially if the use of these sensors becomes widespread, the large quantities of potentially valuable data that derives from it could help neuroscientists better understand the consequences of rugby-related impacts.

On the field, there’s the potential for sideline staff to be provided with real time data on each head impact event. Staff can then decide whether the impact is significant enough for recovery procedures and safe return to play protocols to be triggered.

Sensor technology in rugby: the wider trend…

Elite-level rugby players wired up with digital sensors is hardly a new phenomenon. During the Lions tour of Australia in 2013, for instance, commentators were asking the significance of that distinct rectangular box that was visible at the top of the visitors’ shirts. It turned out that it was a GPS tracking system, capable of feeding coaches with a wide range of vital statistics. Distance covered, speed, intensity, heart rate: if coaches know the usual optimum levels for individual players, information relayed to them via the cloud during matches and training sessions can alert them as to whether those players are struggling.

Collision sensors can be seen as an extension of this; albeit rather than focusing on tracking and analysing general performance, their purpose is to monitor a very specific area of risk concerning potential head injury.

Concussion: cause for serious concern?

The technology put to use by Saracens has its roots in American football. In fact, it was a high school football head injury involving his son that spurred Rich Able, founder of X2 Biosystems to develop this solution.

In the U.S., head injury liked to contact sport is a very much a live issue. This year saw the National Football League negotiate a $1bn settlement plan to resolve thousands of concussion lawsuits. Players’ lawyers argued that the league hid the risks associated with repeated concussions - although the deal may mean that the NFL may never be required to disclose their historic knowledge of the risks.

Neurosurgeons stress the need for greater understanding of the risks associated with concussion and better management of those risks. Multiple concussion incidents sustained over a short time frame are of particular concern. While single, minor concussive episodes have a tendency to resolve spontaneously, there’s understood to be an increased risk of serious repercussions if a player goes on to sustain a further concussive injury before the brain has recovered from the first one.

This is where sensor technology may have a particularly useful application. Amid the cut and thrust of match play, potentially significant incidents can easily be missed. Sensors have the potential to alert touchline staff of a potentially concussive incident that those staff, officials and even the players themselves may have failed to recognise.

Managing the risks

Although we are not yet at a stage where a roll-out of neurosensory technology is imminent across the board, news of new developments in this area serves as a reminder of how important it is to keep up to date with best practice.

The RFU website contains a section dedicated to this, complete with explanatory tools. For further information, the UK Brain Injury Charity, Headway provides updates on current research in this area.