Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison partnered with the National Football League (NFL) to collect data from high-tech mouthguard sensors currently used by the Badger football team.
The main goal of the study is to look at the conditions surrounding an injury. Researchers are looking at the conditions on the field that cause sport-related concussions to occur, according to Daniel Cobian, assistant professor of orthopedics and rehabilitation at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. He is also a co-principal investigator for the study.
Cobian worked with the NFL on previous projects at the Badger Athletic Performance Lab.
“We've worked on some projects with the NFL before and I’d say that we’re kind of a logical partner based on our access to Division I student-athletes, particularly the football team, which is a good surrogate for their [NFL] population,” said Cobian in an interview with the Cardinal.
According to Cobian, his prior research primarily focused on lower extremities, performance after an injury and the return to sport.
“This is more looking at the conditions surrounding the injury,” said Cobian. “So, what are the conditions on the field that cause head injury, that cause these sport-related concussions to occur in the sport of football? What factors relate to the severity of the injury or the types of impacts that are sustained?”
Players involved in the study will wear mouthguards both during practice and in games. Both types of data will help improve player safety, according to Cobian.
“The game has a lot of uncontrolled or uncontrollable factors in terms of how the plays are carried out, what type of offense or what the opposing team is running,” said Cobian. “But in practice, the drills are planned or the specific practice periods or specific types of drills.”
The hardware contained inside the mouthguards measure head and neck accelerations, but the outside looks like a standard mouthguard. Cobian said these mouthguards should not affect players’ performances.
“Some players, for the most part, actually have said this is the most comfortable mouthguard they’ve ever worn,” said Cobian. “Other players have said it’s very uncomfortable.”
Players voluntarily opt into the study and can decide to opt out at any time. Last year Badger football linemen were recruited to wear the mouthguards, but this year, running backs, wide receivers and secondary players all are a part of the study, according to Cobian.
“The players first and foremost volunteering for this and being willing to participate gives us the ability to study these types of things and hopefully improve the safety of future athletes,” said Cobian. “They are not necessarily going to receive a direct benefit in that way but the idea is for future athletes. So that’s really going to them for participating and then the athletic training staff and everybody else involved.”
The NFL launched the mouthguard sensor program in 2019 as a part of the league’s $60 million commitment to help promote health and safety initiatives. This research at UW-Madison, the University of Alabama, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and University of Washington will help drive concussion protection innovation at NFL and collegiate levels.
“This is definitely kind of like a multi-site study where we’re gonna combine a lot of the information that we get, and that just gives us a lot more data to work with,” said Cobian. “We can make much stronger conclusions with the more data you have. So that's an aspect of this study that is pretty interesting.”