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Sharks Gameday: Detecting Concussions

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The NHL needs to immediately adopt this impartial concussion-detecting device.

Don't pat his head too hard, Pat!
Don't pat his head too hard, Pat!
Thearon W. Henderson

Concussions are an unfortunate fact of life in the NHL. They're also an example of the harm that can develop when a player's best medical interests conflict with the financial interest of both that player and his team. If a player has suffered a hit to the head and a decision needs to be made about whether to take it seriously as a potential concussion or just to brush it aside and tell him to "walk it off," it can be difficult for everyone involved to do the best thing, health-wise, when it could cause huge problems, money-wise.

Since head injuries can be so unpredictable and the outward symptoms of a concussion so difficult to observe, it is a simple matter for athletes and teams to give in to the pressure of money or the cult of "macho toughness" and agree to pretend that concussions aren't really a problem. This is an issue that has come up repeatedly in the past in the NHL (and other sports at all different levels of competition), and the system is just as broken now as it was when Ryan Lambert wrote about it a year and a half ago. What can be done to address this ugly situation?

The answer, like always, lies with science.

And the best science, like always, comes from California.

Combating Sports-Related Concussions: New Device Accurately and Objectively Diagnoses Concussions from the Sidelines:

A team led by Daniel Goble, an exercise and nutritional sciences professor at SDSU, have developed software and an inexpensive balance board that can measure balance with 99 percent accuracy on the field and in the clinic. They are testing the device on SDSU's rugby team, with the hope of soon making it available worldwide to athletes of all ages and levels.

Balance tests are one of the best ways to determine whether an athlete has suffered a concussion. The NHL's current concussion protocol mandates administering the SCAT 2 concussion test in a quiet area (though only if the trainer feels it's necessary after an initial evaluation on the bench). You can check out the standard SCAT 2 for yourself right now, as well as the modified one that the NHL uses which doesn't even seem to include balance testing, and if you aren't an idiot (or an NHL GM, but I repeat myself) you can probably already see some problems with it.

The biggest issue with concussion assessments conducted by team trainers and physicians is that the tests are so subjective and open to interpretation, and when you combine that with the obvious pressure on both the player and the medical staff to rule that there hasn't been a concussion, you have a recipe for bad outcomes even if no one is being actively malicious or negligent.

That's where this balance-detecting-machine comes in:

With help from the SDSU College of Engineering and the Zahn Innovation Center, Goble recently validated the balance tracking system, or B-TrackS, to assess balance before and after potential concussions.


In fact, Goble will soon publish a study in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine that shows the validity of the BTrackS system. In this study, the current method of scoring balance for concussions and the BTrackS were compared and the BTrackS was clearly more accurate than even the most experienced trainer.

"There are athletes out there who are playing with concussions and not knowing it," Goble said. "We're taking the uncertainty out of the equation and giving hard data to quantify whether or not a concussion actually occurred."

The improved board works similarly to the current test -- athletes stand on the board and conduct a series of movements based on balance control. Instead of an athletic trainer determining how many "errors" occur, the board will measure how much athletes sway, and give objective data determining their condition.

"Anybody who runs the test will get the same number, and we can use these numbers and try and figure out what quantifies as a concussion," Goble said.

If the NHL is serious about properly handling concussions (which they SAY they are) then they should adopt this technology immediately. Every arena should have these machines available and ready to go at all times. The devices should be networked and hooked up to league headquarters, which will store a database of all players' baseline balance readings from the start of every season.

When a player gets hit in the head or otherwise "shaken-up," you make them strip off their skates and get on the balance tester. The data from their evaluation is immediately uploaded directly to Toronto (to prevent anyone from hiding or skewing it) and if the results come back on the wrong side of the concussion line then that player sits out the rest of the game, and all games after that pending full medical clearance from an unbiased party.

It won't be perfect, sure, and there's still potential for cheating and gaming the system...but using something like this would be far better than the 1950s-style "touch your nose with your finger on the first try" bullshit the league currently employs.

Next Game

San Jose Sharks
@ Carolina Hurricanes

Friday, Dec 6, 2013, 4:00 PM PST
PNC Arena

Complete Coverage >

Prediction: Sharks win 3-1 and every single player on both teams gets concussed.

Video Gamery: My 54th-favorite video game is the Submachine series. It's a series of adventure/puzzle/exploration/mystery games and the individual games are available to play for free online. They're tricky enough to figure out even if you haven't been concussed.