How Army Research Is Combating Concussions in the NFL

By Katie Lange
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

If there’s one thing that connects service members with football players, it’s that they can take a hit. But concussions and brain injuries caused by those hits have become a huge topic to tackle for the military and the football community.

Jimmy Graham (left), tight end for the New Orleans Saints, catches a touchdown pass from quarterback Drew Brees during the 2014 NFL Pro Bowl at the Aloha Stadium, Hawaii. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Matthew Bragg

Jimmy Graham (left), tight end for the New Orleans Saints, catches a touchdown pass from quarterback Drew Brees during the 2014 NFL Pro Bowl at the Aloha Stadium, Hawaii. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Matthew Bragg

To combat the problem, the Army Research Laboratory has teamed up with the National Football League. It was chosen in December as one of three winners of the NFL Head Health Challenge II who were tasked with creating concussion-reducing technology that could eventually become a reality for athletes and service members.

“The military has self-diagnosed over 300,000 cases of TBI in various forms since 2000,” said Dr. Eric Wetzel, a research scientist who heads the team of about 30 people working on the NFL project. “Anything we can do to make progress on that issue is a good thing.”

How Concussions Happen

So what, exactly, is the lab’s concept? Well, to get it, you first have to understand the major factor of what causes a concussion. That is what Wetzel called “violent head motion,” such as when a person’s head is going at a high speed and then suddenly comes to a stop. It can happen to paratroopers in the military, whose heads often hit the ground last.

“There’s data that’s well-documented that the concussion rate for paratroopers is about twice that of a normal soldier,” Wetzel said.

A U.S. paratrooper gets up after landing on the drop zone during Leapfest 2015 in West Kingston, Rhode Island, Aug. 1, 2015. Army Photo by Spc. Joseph Cathey

A U.S. paratrooper gets up after landing on the drop zone during Leapfest 2015 in West Kingston, Rhode Island, Aug. 1, 2015. Army Photo by Spc. Joseph Cathey

With that in mind, Army scientists and researchers have taken technology they’d been tinkering with for years to create tethers that are like speed-dependent rubber bands. They’re expected to cut down on concussions caused by violent falls backward, which happen to a lot of soldiers, quarterbacks and wide receivers.

The tethers are filled with shear thickening fluid that's kept in small white containers. DoD photo by Katie Lange

The tethers are filled with shear thickening fluid that’s kept in small white containers. DoD photo by Katie Lange

“In [a backward-falling] scenario, it’s actually not the falling or head-whipping that causes the injury. It’s when it strikes the ground. … Your brain keeps going, and you have collisions inside that lead to brain injury,” Wetzel said.

Those falls happen in skateboarding, skiing, biking and other sports, too, so the ARL decided focusing on them could have a broader societal impact than just focusing on helmet-to-helmet hits, which tend to be a football-only problem.

The goal of the ARL’s tethers is to supplement a person’s neck muscles and control the violent head motion.  In case you’re wondering how, let me lay it out for you:

What the tethers do:

The tethers are basically elastic tubes with a special fluid inside them. “That fluid has these really crazy speed-dependent properties. It’s like a water-like liquid until you try to put too much stress into it, and then it transforms into more of a solid-like material,” Wetzel said.

Basically, when you pull on the tethers at a normal speed, they stretch pretty easily. But if you try to stretch them quickly, you have to do so with a LOT of force — about 100 times more force, Wetzel said.

Where the tethers go:

The tethers won’t be put in helmets; instead, they’ll be situated around the waist and torso by something akin to a light-weight harness built into an undergarment. Researchers said that area is a more solid contact point than, say, shoulder pads, which move too freely.

Industrial designers on the ARL team said they’re using racecar, climbing and paratrooper harnesses for inspiration. But no matter what, it has to look chic. “We were given very strict instructions that whatever we develop has to look cool, because if it looks dorky, no one will wear it,” Wetzel said.

A rendering of where the pieces of the tether system would connect to a football uniform. Graphic courtesy of Army Research Lab

A rendering of where the pieces of the tether system would connect to a football uniform. Graphic courtesy of Army Research Lab

How it works:

The tethers inside the harness will be attached to the helmet via a strap, which will act like a shock-absorber when a person’s head starts to whip backward.  “As [the head] approaches the ground, it’s being decelerated [by the tethers],” Wetzel said. “You impact the ground then with less velocity, less force, and that puts less trauma into the brain.”

But won’t those straps and harnesses be constraining?

Nope. At the ARL, they know service members and athletes need free range of motion to look around, assess their surroundings and respond, so helmets will be retrofitted with a bar that the straps attach to — much like where a football player’s mouth guard attaches now. As the athlete rotates his head, the straps will glide on that bar. The only time they’ll resist is when there’s violent, high-speed motion.

A rendering of how the shock-absorbing strap can pivot on a football helmet. Graphic courtesy of Army Research Lab

A rendering of how the shock-absorbing strap can pivot on a football helmet. Graphic courtesy of Army Research Lab

When will this be on the field?

The NFL hopes to have a product it can sell within 18 months. In the next six months, the ARL team will build a prototype with the help of an equipment manufacturer that can refine its design. After that, they want to test it on real athletes, then present it to the NFL and its sponsors.  If all goes well, it’s on to commercialization!

While the focus is currently on producing the technology for athletes, the team will continue to research how it can be used for service members injured in training, in vehicle crashes and by improvised explosive devices.

For those of you football lovers, though, you may soon be seeing the Army Research Lab’s efforts on your TV, in a store or at your kid’s high school football game.

Interested in the science behind what the ARL team is doing to make this happen? Check out Armed With Science’s blog about it!

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One Response to How Army Research Is Combating Concussions in the NFL

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