Faculty and students in The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Graduate Athletic Training Program joined MomsTEAM Institute, a leading youth sports health and safety think tank and watchdog group, for a pilot test of MomsTEAM’s innovative SmartTeam™ program which installs impact sensors in youth football players’ helmets.

“This started as an initiative to improve policies, procedures, and safeguards to protect kids and reduce the risk of brain and other injuries when they participate in the sport. There are increasing concerns about the long term physiological concerns of concussions,” said Dr. Gary Wilkerson.

Brooke de Lench, Executive Director of MomsTEAM Institute, became involved with UTC when she spoke at the Safeguarding Student-Athlete Health and Welfare Conference arranged by Wilkerson.

“She got to know us and we got to know her and we wanted to collaborate. We asked her if there was a local chapter of the national MomsTEAM organization and there wasn’t, which I think planted the seed of our participation in the Smart Teams program,” Dr. Marisa Colston said.

The UTC program was one of only six SmartTeams pilot programs nationwide, along with University of South Carolina, A.T. Still University, Michigan State University, University of Tulsa, and University of Texas at Arlington.  Like the UTC program, each was coordinated by a university-based athletic training educator, clinician, and researcher.

In conjunction with MomsTEAM and the SmartTeam program, helmet impact sensors were donated by a Canadian company, Gforcetracker, Inc., Markham, Ontario.

“Sensors like these help because someone on the sidelines can’t see every player at once, but they could have a tablet linked to the sensors in the helmets. Every play is going to have impact, and that device allows you to see if any of the hits exceed the threshold. Does that tell you if that child has a concussion? No, but it does tell you that player took a wallop of a hit, and maybe you want to pull that player aside and take an educated, preventative look at them,” Colston said.

“There’s no threshold where you can say this is how hard that kid was hit, he definitely has a concussion. There are too many factors that go into it. But these sensors allow us to see, in real time, that this player took a really hard hit. And sometimes, yes, they did show signs of a concussion, complaining of headache or wobbling off the field,” Dr. Shellie Acocello said.

The program began On Saturday, October 11, when helmet impact sensors installed for four Hixson youth football teams were monitored during games played at Finley Stadium. Of the 100 impact sensors that UTC received from GROUP, approximately 70 were installed in the helmets of players in one 5-7-year-old team, one 8-year-old team, two 9-year-old teams, and two 10-11- year-old teams. Sensors continued to be monitored for the remaining six games of the season.

Researchers measured players’ age, height, weight, head and neck circumference, as well as the ratio of helmet weight to body weight and helmet weight to neck circumference.

“One of the biggest things we were looking into is the ‘bobble head’ effect where these small kids have these big helmets and smaller necks, which in our minds creates a recipe for possible injury,” said Sara Rock, a graduate student in the UTC Athletic Training Program.

Major helmet manufactures produce youth helmets from the same molds used to produce adult helmets, increasing the amount of padding to fit a child.

“So what that means it that you have a very heavy helmet on a child with an underdeveloped neck, which we believe plays a role in their ability to control their head during impacts. And we’re seeing trends in the data that seem to confirm that notion,” Wilkerson said.

“We are still in the process of data cleaning, finding correlations and relationships with the data, but we found in some of the data that smaller neck circumference in relation to the helmet weight, you’re getting more rotational acceleration and higher chance of concussion,” said Lydia Wright, a graduate student in the UTC Athletic Training Program.

“We still have more work to do with the data, but the trend appears to be that the 5 – 7 year olds don’t hit as hard. They’re less aggressive, they lean into each other and drag each other down. Then, the 9 – 11 years are bigger, with more developed bodies and higher body mass, so they’re hitting hard, but their bodies are more developed. The older the kids get, the less heavy the helmet is in relation to their body mass, and the better they can control their heads on impact. The greatest source of concern seems to be that middle group, the 8-year-olds, who are beginning to hit harder, but don’t have the physical development and the neck strength of that older group,” Wilkerson said.

“However, to say that definitively, we would need to see studies done on a much larger scale. But from the limited data we have, the trend is there,” Colston said.

The UTC Graduate Athletic Training Program still has the sensors and plans to conduct further studies with them.

“We could go back to youth football, look at high school or collegiate level football, even compare age levels. In the future, we may also study fewer teams during more games,” Acocella said.

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