In Power-Packed Rugby, New Tech Helps Prevent Brain Injuries

As the Rugby World Cup gets underway in Japan, global sports fans are riveted to the pitch. Meanwhile, the UK Ospreys’ support team is riveted to their tech monitors on the sidelines, seeking to proactively avoid athletes’ brain injuries.

While American football is often cited as the sport with the most head concussions among players, research shows it is actually the second-worst and, curiously, athletes in the sport most prone to head injuries — rugby — wear perhaps the least protective gear.

The number of reported concussions in the National Football League has reached record levels: 281 during the 2017 season. The Journal of the American Medical Association reports that brain injuries in American football are incredibly common and can contribute to chronic pain, lifelong migraines, and even brain damage, known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Over the past decade, this information helped prompt former NFL players to file lawsuits seeking up to $1.5 billion in settlement payments.

Yet despite the notoriety of American football, analysts with the group Complete Concussion Management say the sport actually ranks second for the most concussions. Their research reveals that men’s rugby football players suffer the highest number of brain injuries. In the UK, George North, a wing with the Ospreys Rugby team, knows this only too well — he suffered a series of head injuries beginning in 2015. “Most of the day we spend getting smashed all over the place,” says North.

As rugby’s global popularity grows, so do concerns about under-reported brain injuries. The recent deaths of four rugby players in France has brought attention to the lack of protective gear available to shield athletes’ brains and bodies.

Professional rugby in particular has exploded in global popularity. This in turn has led to more bulked-up players delivering incredibly powerful blows. “You have an increase in size and strength and speed of the player. The general trend of the last 20 years is that the impacts have been harder,” says sports scientist Dr. Elisabeth Williams.

“If you get knocked out, it’s pretty black and white.” But Ospreys fullback Dan Evans says the gray area surrounding impacts is especially concerning. “Sometimes you could just have a head blow, and you may feel all right. The players try to think, ‘Yeah, I’m fine, I’m fine,’ but deep down you might think ‘It’s not all right.’”

It’s the not knowing that can ultimately significantly hurt athletes in the long term, with medical consequences sometimes not revealed until years after they retire.

American football players are experimenting with sensor-embedded helmets, but according to Williams, “You cannot do that for rugby, because we don’t wear helmets!” She references past rugby impact research involved sensor patches that were stuck to players’ heads and produced too many false positives while other tests resulted in data interpretation difficulties.

“There’s been no real objective, reliable way to measure how hard those impacts were — until now, ” Williams says. “We knew we needed a sensor that was really, really tightly coupled with the skull. The teeth move with the skull, they’re part of the skull.”

Sports & Wellbeing Analytics (SWA) has developed a sports mouthguard, or gum shield, implanted with high-tech sensors – initially designed for rugby players supported by Williams’ research team at Swansea University. The PROTECHT system reports in real time to the pitch side team, letting them know the size and frequency of head impacts being sustained by the players.

After the SWA team and its partners finished crafting the PROTECHT wearable device, they polished it off with an infusion of tech.

Video: New tech helps reduce brain injuries in sports like rugby
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“We built the software elements of the system using SAP HANA, harnessing its ability to track or record sensor data in real time,” says SWA CEO Chris Turner. “The beauty of it is that you can put a whole lot of more unstructured background data about an athlete into the system very quickly. Basically, you can use a system that you might have expected to be set up for commercial purposes, but instead use it for human data. That was the idea behind it.”

“Essentially, we are working to make contact sports safer by presenting accurate data on the forces the body is exposed to in a collision,” Turner shares. “We want to highlight the impacts that may have previously gone unseen, while also ensuring that we support coaches in avoiding unintended impacts in practice.”

Working with tech consultants from SAP partner Keytree, the whole PROTECHT system was in development for under three years. “The application itself was very quick to develop and that’s what runs on SAP Cloud Platform. What took longer were the bespoke electronics.”

Keytree’s Tom Howard explains how it works: “The gum shield contains two sensors: one which measures straight-line acceleration of the head, and the other which measures rotational velocity of the head.” When a rugby player gets slammed, “that data is then sent to the side of the pitch where rugby management can see it[on their computers].”

Now, when Ospreys’ Dan Evans and his teammates step onto the field at the Liberty Stadium in Wales, he wears his new high-tech gum shield designed by SWA. The hypersensitive sensor system measures the intensity and frequency of head impacts to Evans, yet it feels comfortable to wear, “just like any other gum shield,” he says.

While Evans certainly feels a collision on the field, he chooses not to see the data and relies on the expertise of the professional support team. He says it is “completely for the scientists or rugby staff behind us” to evaluate the data. They use the information gleaned from the data to proactively change a players’ training — or even to pull a player out of a match altogether.

Turner emphasizes that the system does not diagnose head injuries but instead detects and measures them. Nevertheless, SWA is excited about its long-term potential in sports. “The more data we have from the mouthguards, the more advanced our analytics can become over time, thereby reducing the risk [for athletes].”

Swansea researchers are already studying the use of these impact sensors in other contact sports, and they’re now going beyond men’s sports. While research on women is still relatively new, female athletes report concussions at a higher frequency than male athletes in sports like women’s rugby, field hockey, and ice hockey. Sensor tech combined with medical advancements may help explain why.

There is an even larger potential user base. While professional athletes number in the tens or hundreds of thousands, teens and children who play sports like rugby and American football number in the millions. Now Stanford University School of Medicine, along with other institutions, are launching research into youth concussions and the threat to young brains.

George North thinks this technology promises great benefits for young players and their parents on the sidelines: “I think it’s brilliant. Eventually it’s going out to grassroots rugby and that instant feedback is going to be huge.”