From leather helmets of the early 1900s to sleek, blow-absorbing helmets used in football games today, the technology of protecting players heads has come a long way.
But despite technological improvements, some experts say there’s no conclusive evidence that the number of concussions has actually decreased over the years.
In the United States, between two and four million concussions are diagnosed in athletes annually. An estimated 90-percent of mild traumatic brain injury cases go undetected because of their difficulty to diagnose accurately.
NewsCenter 16 spoke with two families who learned first hand the dangers of full-contact sports. Each played different sports, and each used top of the line equipment.
Lucy Magee said she is still a football mom at heart even though her son, William Dettman, no longer plays the sport.
“He was always the big one on the team, he was the one that injured some kids some times,” said Magee.
William started playing football at the age of seven and had an eleven-year career playing in middle school, continued playing at John Adams High School and went onto play at Wabash College.
“As a parent, you would think that injuries would be a concern,” said Magee, but between her son’s stature and nickname as “the beast,” injuries seemed unlikely.
However, she did notice that William would come home from practice talking about vomiting or headaches. Magee would administer ibuprofen and assumed his temporary maladies were related to head exhaustion.
It wasn’t until William was practicing with the team at Wabash that concussions were of any concern.
According to Magee, her son took a big hit at practice and was told by trainers that they couldn’t guarantee he’d recover from a future concussion. After that William started having trouble concentrating at college, his grades dropped and he began feeling depressed. Magee told her son contact sports were out of the question and she asked him to return to Michiana to go to school locally.
“Now as part of the concussions he has lost part of his identity, now he has concussion induced ADD and concussion induced depression,” Magee explained.
Magee, like many parents, said she assumed her son was being coached in the safest way to play football
“They’re touting now ‘don’t tackle head down, don’t use your head a weapon,’ but this was 14 years ago, they didn’t talk about it then. They talk about it now,” said Magee.
Hard hits aren’t unique to football: hockey and lacrosse are sports notorious for contact and expensive protective equipment.
Soon-to-be senior at Penn High School, Ryan Walsh, no longer plays hockey and lacrosse after he sustained two game-changing concussions.
The first one happened during a hockey game. Ryan turned around right into a hit and just got blindsided. He continued to play hockey and didn’t think any serious damage was done.
The second happened during a lacrosse tournament. Ryan knocked helmets with a taller player, left the game, and went home with searing neck and head pain that night.
“I was more dazed than anything and didn’t really comprehend what was going on,” said Ryan.
When Ryan and his family returned home they went straight to the doctor and then a neurologist.
Ryan’s mother, Meghan Walsh, said the doctor told them every concussion is different and they wouldn’t know how severe it was or how long it would take to recover.
“He had headaches every day, dizziness, couldn’t sleep the rest of the school year, through the summer, into the fall,” Meghan explained.
School became more of a struggle after the concussions. Ryan’s ability to memorize concepts quickly faded away and the Walshs said schoolwork started to pile up.
The only way to recover after a concussion is brain rest, which means no television, no substantial reading, and limited physical activity.
A study, conducted by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and funded by the NFL found that most concussion symptoms disappear in to weeks, but in 10-20 percent of individuals the symptoms could persist for weeks, months, or even years.
To avoid exasperating the damage of concussions, helmet safety experts at NOCSAE say not returning to play is key. Which means detecting concussions early is important.
A More Objective Concussion Test:
As it stands most concussion tests involve athletic trainers and coaches asking about the symptoms (what they say) immediately after the suspected injury. Further assessments include cognitive tests, coordination and balance tests and looking for physical signs of injury.
But sideline assessments are limited in their diagnostic accuracy. Contect Inc., is working to develop a mobile app that would provide a fast, simple and more objective way to detect concussions.
Unlike traditional screening methods, which require medical training and are prone to manipulation by athletes, the Contect app recognizes changes in speech and acoustics in a person’s voice that happens with concussions.
Different words, said president of Contect Inc., Shane McQuillan, demand varying control of the vocal tract and mouth and effect sounds. The acoustic feature the apps is looking to detect are pitch, shimmer, jitter, and more.
Athletes complete the test at the beginning of the season to provide a “base” sample. That sample is then compared to the post-injury test.
The characteristics of changes in speech caused by brain conditions are so subtle as to be impossible for an athlete to manipulate, thus overcoming the issue of players wanting to “play through the pain.”
Over the past few years, researchers at the University of Notre Dame studied the link between concussions and speech, and collected data from hundreds of athletes at the university.
Contect is expanding its research this fall, collecting concussion data from thousands of athletes, including hundreds of high school students in South Bend, Goshen, and other local districts.
McQuillan said the goal is to unveil the app some time in 2015.