UNC leads way in concussion research
Posted February 14, 2013
Chapel Hill, N.C. — In recent years, head injuries – specifically concussions – have spurred increasing levels of concern for players, coaches and fans of contact sports like football.
Researchers have started focusing a lot of attention on head injuries: What causes them, how to prevent them and how to treat them. Some of the most influential work in that area is happening in the Triangle.
Zach Wagnon, a senior at Knightdale High School, saw his football career ended by a concussion, his third.
Now Wagon, who has a second degree black belt and has been taking Tae Kown Do since he was 6 years old, is afraid.
“I am scared of getting hit in the head,” Wagnon said.
In his time playing football at Knightdale, Wagnon had three documented concussions. His third concussion happened last August, three days before the Knights opened the season at home against Millbrook.
Despite missing out on football in his senior year, Wagnon’s reaction may be surprising to some.
“It was a relief knowing I didn’t have to get hit anymore,” he said. “Every time I hit someone I would feel a constant vibration in my head. It just hurt.”
Some of the most extensive research to understand concussions like the three Wagnon sustained is going on at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The UNC football team is one of a handful of college teams using the “HIT System,” a program developed by UNC researchers that uses a series of helmet sensors to communicate with a computer on the sideline.
“[Players] participate in their football practice or game (with the sensors in their helmets). Nothing happens until they get a big hit,” UNC researcher Jason Mihalik said.
In a demonstration, Mihalik showed an impact directed to the top of a player’s head.
“It was registered at 40 GS, which is a car crash in the range of 15 to 20 miles per hour,” he explained.
UNC has been collecting such data for nine years, and researchers are starting to come to some conclusions about concussions.
“Impacts that were occurring during helmets-only practices were, on average, more severe than those we were seeing in games,” Mihalik said. “That was surprising, because everyone associates concussions with big hits.”
Information discovered by the UNC researchers is being used by coaches too, including UNC football coach Larry Fedora. Fedora has used the research to make his practices safer.
“We do practice hard when we are not in full pads. We may be in shorts and shoulder pads, but we don’t take people to the ground because that’s where the injuries come from,” he said.
Fedora has embraced the research.
“The thing that excited me as a coach was we were going to have a way to really know if a kid had a problem,” Fedora said. “You may know he doesn’t have a concussion because he had no blows that were heavy enough to his head, so you may be able to sit him down and then he can go back out there.”
Fedora says he thinks the research is an advantage for UNC, but some people believe all the attention paid to head injuries leads to fearful play.
Fellow researcher Johna Register-Mihalik said doctors and coaches must battle a culture that equates learning about concussions with weakness. “You do see people saying, ‘Alright, I’ve heard enough. I know all I need to know. I don’t want to hear anymore,’” Register-Mihalik said. “One of the biggest things is getting them to understand the severity of a concussion. It is a brain injury. It’s not just getting hit in the head.”
Wagnon has learned that firsthand.
“It’s always something you are thinking about. When will you get your next concussion?”
UNC continues its research, but its biggest challenge is sample size. The “HIT System” is too expensive for smaller college and high schools, so they are trying to develop a more cost effective way to measure hits on the field.