Team sports build character, teach discipline and keep your kids healthy, but for some sports, like soccer and football, they could also increase their risk of brain injuries. Helping to prevent these injuries, a new neck collar has shown promising results in protecting the brain.
The specialized collar, developed by researchers at the Children’s Hospital in Cincinnati, applies pressure to the back of the neck. This pressure allows the artery in the neck to safely backfill the brain with blood, turning the blood into a cushion that makes it less likely for the brain to move upon impact.
The idea for the collar was born out of “biological mimicry,” Dr. David Smith, a visiting research scientist at the Children’s Hospital who led a study that tested the collar, told ABC News.
Essentially, Smith and his colleagues looked to nature to solve a medical issue. “If a woodpecker could repeatedly hit its head and not sustain any head injury, why couldn’t this be applied to humans,” Smith said.
The study involved 75 teen girls ages 14 to 18 who played for two local high school soccer teams. Only one team received the collars, and then they played soccer. Both teams were asked to undergo brain scans at the beginning and end of the season, as well as during the off-season.
The scans showed that while the brains of the team that hadn’t worn the collars showed signs of damage from head impacts, the brains of the team that had worn the collars remained the same.
The results are encouraging considering that even minor impacts over the course of an athlete’s career can have long-lasting effects on their cognitive functioning.
Concussions have emerged as a major health concern across the United States, according to the American Academy of Physicians. Emergency departments report more than a million visits annually for traumatic brain injuries, most of which are concussions.
Women’s soccer is the third most common cause of concussion in the U.S., and it’s estimated that 1.6 to 3.8 million sports-related concussions occur each year.
There is a debate as to whether the changes shown in the brain scans can result in long-term cognitive decline. However, the areas of the brain that were affected in this study are involved in behavior, personality, expression, decision-making, and long-term memory.
The Academy of Family Physicians states that a concussion is a functional injury rather than a structural one, meaning that it can correlate with symptoms such as changes in sleep, confusion, depression, inability to focus and headache, to name a few. If you’ve experienced a blow to the head and feel some of these symptoms, then see a doctor and ask about concussion.
The study did not account for hormonal fluctuations in the girls, which could affect intracranial pressure. It also didn’t look more deeply into whether or not the observed in the brain led to behavioral or physical symptoms.
That said, if wearing the specialized collar can protect the brain from injuries while athletes continue to enjoy competitive sports, it may be a small price to pay for long-term protection. In the near future, a neck collar may be just another part of your child’s uniform along with cleats and knee pads.
Dr. Tambetta Ojong is a family medicine resident at SUNY Downstate Medical Center and a member of the ABC News Medical Unit.
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