Research First Line of Defense as NFL Moves to Improve Player Safety


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Researchers at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia often find themselves at the cusp of diverse fields, and for child safety expert Kristy Arbogast, PhD, they are intersecting at the 50-yard line.

Dr. Arbogast, co-scientific director and director of engineering for the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at CHOP and a research professor of Pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania, is part of the National Football League’s (NFL) $60 million commitment to improve player safety through encouraging advances in the engineering development of protective equipment. She is tackling concussions in the NFL from a unique vantage point — inside the players’ helmets.

Concussions can result from a blow or jolt to the head or body that causes the brain to deform within the skull. Football helmets were designed originally to prevent skull fractures and the most serious brain injuries, but not specifically to manage the rotational forces that are an important aspect of how concussions occur.

As a consultant for the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), Dr. Arbogast provides her expertise in traumatic brain injury prevention and the role of protective equipment in reducing injury risk.  The NFL initiated an effort to catalyze transformations in helmet design, called the Engineering Roadmap, and reached out to Dr. Arbogast via the NFLPA to play a leadership role.

Dr. Arbogast’s scientific contributions to the project also will be a win for children. While the NFL’s game plan for precision protection is geared toward professional athletes, the results likely will spark new technologies for helmet designs and other protective equipment that will gravitate to youth sports.

Three years ago, as the NFLPA’s representative on the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Engineering Subcommittee, Dr. Arbogast helped to develop a helmet testing program using detailed statistical analysis to evaluate how helmets performed in a laboratory test designed to mimic impacts in the NFL. The committee completes testing annually and creates posters with these rankings that are posted in all NFL teams’ locker rooms so that equipment managers, trainers, and players can make informed choices about their protective equipment. The decision of which helmet to wear is ultimately up to the player who is permitted to use any model that is approved by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment.

“I do think players are interested in their own safety,” Dr. Arbogast said. “Creating the posters has contributed to a depth of conversation between equipment managers, players, and the committee. We took engineering science backed by rigorous statistics to give players information.”

This effort gave rise to a concerted plan to encourage innovation in protective equipment. The NFL’s Engineering Roadmap launched in 2016. A main goal of the Roadmap’s research plan is to better understand the types of impacts that players are experiencing on the field: What is the magnitude of the impact, how much does the head rotate and how fast, from what direction are impacts coming from, and how do those factors vary depending on the position that they play? New insights about this “loading environment” will lay the groundwork for concepts such as designing position-specific helmets that could help keep players safer.

“An offensive lineman experiences different kinds of impacts than a wide receiver,” Dr. Arbogast said. “They have different pads. They might choose different shoes. Maybe they should have different helmets too?”

One way researchers are gathering this information is by using game-day videos to meticulously reconstruct concussions cases that have occurred in the NFL during the last two years. While this approach gives a view of what the helmet is doing, it does not show what happens to the head upon impact. Dr. Arbogast’s charge is to identify or develop a sensor package that would allow researchers to measure directly and accurately what the head is doing.

“We want to continuously gather data to get a comprehensive view of what the loading conditions are,” Dr. Arbogast said. “At the end of the game, we’d collect the sensor, download the data, and then analyze the accelerations and velocities that the players’ heads experience during the game … With this data, we would now know what types of impacts we need to ask the helmet to protect against.  This would lead to the innovative helmet designs to meet these specifications.”

Dr. Arbogast and her colleagues first will assess the variety of sensors that are currently available in the marketplace for both commercial and research purposes. They also are speaking with athletic trainers, equipment managers, and players to find out which sensors would be accepted by players as a standard part of their equipment. Implementation of the sensor program requires approval from the NFLPA.

The Engineering Roadmap also creates opportunities for input and innovation from outside of the NFL. At a symposium held in November in Washington, D.C., the NFL issued the first HeadHealthTECH challenge, an open innovation and crowdsourcing program to solicit ideas for advances in protective equipment. Led by Barry Myers, MD, PhD, MBA, at Duke University, a scientific review panel will review the proposals and make recommendations for funding promising technologies. Dr. Arbogast spoke at the symposium, which was attended by researchers, biomechanics experts, engineering students, protective equipment and sensor manufacturers, and others. She applauded their pursuit of collaborative science.

“This body of work will be really fundamental in understanding, at a very detailed mechanical level, the scenarios in which injuries are happening,” Dr. Arbogast said. “And that, I think, will allow us to stimulate innovation in the right way, because you don’t just want to say to these innovators, ‘Oh go out and build a new helmet.’ With the Engineering Roadmap research plan, we’re going to have the data to really direct the development of these innovations in a way that’s evidence-based and real.”

As a leader in the field of child safety, Dr. Arbogast also wants to make certain that the voice of youth are heard during the Engineering Roadmap process, even though it centers on professional football athletes’ safety.

“I feel it’s my responsibility that, as we learn these new things, to say: What does this mean for kids?” Dr. Arbogast said. “I see this initiative as a way to ensure that other sports are played safer too. It is an opportunity to be part of team that could shape something that is very applied and that really affects the lives of kids.”

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