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Football neck fracture in real time

U. MICHIGAN (US) — For the first time, technology has captured in real time the impact that caused a high school football player to break his neck in a head-down tackle.

It is rare for a high school or college student to suffer a broken neck. The bigger, more common problem in youth athletics is concussion.

However, most of the media attention and research focuses on professional sports, says Steven Broglio, assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Michigan.

Concussion among football athletes occurs at about 90 to 100 g-force. A shuttle launch has about 3 g-force. (Credit: Steven Broglio)


“To us, the larger public health issue is with the 1.5 million high school kids that play football each year. Not the 1,500 that play in the NFL.”

The student-athletes in Broglio’s study wear helmets outfitted with padded sensors called the Head Impact Telemetry System.

The sensors, the same type that activate a car air bag, wirelessly transmit the location and magnitude of the impact to a sideline computer 10-20 seconds later.

In this particular player’s case, it was obvious that something serious had occurred, but the impact he sustained wasn’t as hard as others in the study have sustained who weren’t concussed.

The research is published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Each athlete’s body reacts differently to impact, but the average for concussion is about the same across high school, college, and professional.

A concussion occurs at roughly 90 to 100 g-force, “which is like smashing your head against a wall at 20 mph,” Broglio says. The shuttle launch is about 3 g-force; a rolling fighter pilot about 5-10 g-force.

A high school football player takes about 652 impacts over a 12-13 week season.

“I challenge you to find a parent who will tell their kid to bang their head against the wall 652 times in 12 weeks,” Broglio says. “It’s an interesting way to think about it.”

Eventually, Broglio says he would like to see a similar system used as diagnostic tool to record linear acceleration, rotational acceleration, and impact location on every athletic field, but that kind of technology is still years away from becoming reality.

“Ultimately, we’re trying to use these measures to predict concussion,” Broglio says. “If someone exceeds a certain level then we would know they have a concussion and we could pull them.”

The injured student healed and was cleared 12 weeks later to play basketball, Broglio says.

Researchers from Brown University and the University of New Hampshire contributed to the study.

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