A group of researchers has developed the first potential solution to reducing sports-related concussions that doesn’t involve helmets—a simple collar worn by athletes that compresses vessels in the neck to increase cranial blood volume, thereby reducing internal movement of the brain.
The medical community has known for a while that helmets do not offer total protection from concussions. But until now, there has been no alternative for a better solution.
“Helmets have a natural limitation,” said study contributor, Dr. Julian Bailes, former NFL and NCAA team physician and new chair of the Department of Neurosurgery at NorthShore University HealthSystem in Evanston, Ill. “With some major collisions, the helmet—the head—stops moving. The brain, which is floating inside, can continue the momentum, hitting against the inside of the cranium possibly rotating and tearing fibers. Helmets work well for preventing scalp laceration, skull fracture and bleeding in the brain, but they don’t always prevent rotation and tearing of brain fibers,” he said.
Instead of trying to prevent concussions with external protection, the team of researchers came up with a piece of equipment that internally affects the players.
“Our concept was to cut down on that movement that we call ‘slosh,’” Bailes said.
Slosh is the term that co-researchers Drs. David Smith, Joseph Fisher and Bailes came up with to describe the movement and tearing of the brain that occurs when an athlete sustains a hit and suffers from a concussion.
Smith works at West Virginia University (WVU) in the Department of Neurosurgery, where the research took place. Fisher, a senior scientist at the Toronto General Research Institute, also collaborated on the study.
“The blood goes from your heart up two main systems of arteries—the carotid arteries and the vertebral arteries—to your brain, circulates around and returns to your heart,” said Bailes. “We have a collar that has two compressive beads that press on the jugular veins enough to mildly increase blood volume in the brain to reduce slosh,” he said.
The scientists found an 83 percent reduction in the number of torn brain fibers in a standard laboratory concussion model performed on rats that wore the collars. The study was published electronically in the medical journal Neurosurgery in September.
While the collars have not yet been studied on people for their effectiveness at preventing concussions, they have been used by the military to test for wearability.
“We wanted to get it out in the field. The main thing was that the material needs to be changed, which we’re doing,” Bailes said.
Athletes are not the only ones who can benefit from this collar. The researchers discussed with the military how to reduce concussions in soldiers. While some helmets used by the military do in fact have nonballistic protective qualities, most do not. Most are designed to protect from shrapnel, fragments and bullets.
“In warfare, the goal was to prevent penetrating injuries to the brain, so better, stronger helmets were developed. But now, because of bombs and roadside explosions, [some] soldiers are sometimes returning with 12 to 15 concussions,” Bailes said.
Research on the collars is ongoing at WVU and at NorthShore.
“It’s the first time ever to attempt to prevent brain injury by internal protection. This is a huge departure from previous methods. It also happens to be unobtrusive and readily affordable,” he said.
Bailes said these findings are preliminary, and further work needs to be conducted to determine the effectiveness of this method in humans. “Hopefully, we are on the right track,” he said.
Erin O’Donnell is a freelance health and science writer, parent, and graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Walks by Lake Michigan make her happy.