Why you should care
Because head injuries are the next frontier for female athletes.
For the past decade-plus, sports fans have been deluged with concussion talk: From the movie Concussion to various documentaries and TV chatter about head injuries to stars and the future of America’s football colossus … and we still don’t know the half of it.
Why? Because studying concussions in the other half, women, is green science. Now, two researchers at Virginia Tech University, professor Steve Rowson and Ph.D. student Emily Kieffer are looking for answers on concussions and it has nothing to do with the NFL. Their landmark study is examining male and female rugby players side by side, using an engineered mouthpiece to measure impacts.
“We know a lot about 18- to 22-year-old males in a helmeted sport, football,” says Rowson, an associate professor in the department of biomedical engineering and mechanics. “This is going to be some of the first data to really identify concussion tolerance in unhelmeted populations.”
And that data could reshape how we deal with female concussions — a growing concern in youth soccer.
The rugby players are prone to joke: “Emily, you’re just here to see us have concussions.”
While the data will be valuable for unhelmeted men, the Virginia Tech study leans toward women because there is far less data on women and concussions. There is some evidence that women have more severe and longer-lasting concussion symptoms, according to the Johns Hopkins Women’s Sports Medicine Program.
“I think we’re just scratching the surface of what we know about concussions, truthfully,” says Dr. Jody Ortega of the Andrews Sports Medicine and Orthopaedic Center in Birmingham, Alabama, which works with professional, college and high school athletes. “We need more research in helmeted athletes and unhelmeted athletes.”
Rowson, 35, had the idea and he handed it off to Kieffer, 24, who is collecting the data and will present her thesis in 2021. The data come from a mouthpiece that weighs half an ounce and contains six sensors — three accelerometers and three angular rate sensors — and a battery for Bluetooth for transmitting data.
There have been concussion studies done using mouthpieces, and there are ongoing parallel studies on concussions, in general, but where Virginia Tech’s study is unique is the video analysis that will go with the data transmitted on head impacts. Kieffer will scrutinize each hit she sees on advanced video and sync each hit with data that flashes on the computer from the mouthpiece.
Kieffer also designed a 27-question symptom questionnaire that athletes fill out every week. Aside from the male-female differences, the research could allow coaches to caution women on whether certain plays they make in a game would increase their head injury risk.
Kieffer played soccer and ran track at her high school outside Pittsburgh and participates in intramural sports at Virginia Tech. She’s an unobtrusive scientist when she is at the rugby games, collecting data without comments on safety. She has bonded with the players, taking road trips and discussing her research with them. They might share symptoms with her before they would their coaches, Kieffer says, though they’re prone to joke: “Emily, you’re just here to see us have concussions.”
Rowson recruited Kieffer after her undergraduate degree at the University of Pittsburgh specifically to work on this project. “Collecting this kind of data is difficult and requires initiative, a solid technical foundation and strong interpersonal skills,” he says. “It was clear to me that Emily could excel in leading this research project.”
Kieffer has the ethos of a scientist. She does not jump to conclusions. She points out that rugby is a game people pick up later in life, unlike football. So the athletes are not as accustomed to the rules and nature of the game and might attempt riskier plays because they don’t know better … and get injured.
Whether this research is a breakthrough elsewhere could be up to the personal preferences of athletes. An athletic trainer for a Southeastern Conference program, who did not want to be named criticizing another school’s research, says the mouthpieces can rust because of the metal from the sensors. The trainer says their athletes were not comfortable wearing the mouthpieces.
Both of Virginia Tech’s lead researchers stay active in their own competitive sports. When she plays soccer, Kieffer does not attempt to head the ball. It’s not that the ball can cause a concussion, she says, it’s if you collide with an opponent trying to head the same ball.
Rowson is the father of a 2-year-old, and his wife is pregnant with a second child. He played multiple sports growing up in South Jersey and is still an avid athlete who runs — and risks concussions on his intramural champion flag football team, which he says has its moments of contact.
Rowson, now a senior researcher, started his career at Virginia Tech in 2003 with research using sensors inside football helmets, a practice adopted now by many major college programs. His work later extended into bike helmets.
What makes Virginia Tech’s work notable is its “Helmet Lab,” which has gained notoriety the last 13 years for its safety rankings of helmets of all kinds. Thad Ide, Riddell’s senior vice president for research and product development told Bloomberg News in 2015 the rankings have “driven adoption of more technology in helmets.” But Schutt Sports CEO Robert Erb criticized the lab’s ratings for oversimplifying aspects of concussion research: “These ratings are misleading people,” he told Bloomberg.
Virginia Tech’s head injury research has extended outside sports, into the automotive industry and the military. Now, at last, it’s putting men and women on the same playing field.