Tracking Concussions

By Staff

Athletic Management, 16.3, April/May 2004,

Brandon Manning, a junior linebacker at Virginia Tech, is known for being in the right place at the right time. So his coaches were puzzled when they looked at the game tape following the team’s loss to West Virginia this past fall and noticed Manning was often out of position.

When they questioned Manning on it, he had no answer. When he saw the tape himself, he realized that he was seeing many parts of the game for the first time.

Coaches relayed word of Manning’s amnesia to the sports medical staff, who quickly went to their computers. During the game, Manning wore one of eight helmets outfitted with the Head Impact Telemetry (HIT) System technology. The special helmet contains six tiny accelerometers similar to the sensors used to trigger air bag deployment during automobile accidents. The sensors gather information about the force and directionality of each blow to the helmet and transfer the data to a microchip inside the crown of the helmet and then to a laptop computer on the sideline.

The medical staff saw that a high load had been recorded during the first half. Matching the game video to the HIT System’s data, they deduced that Manning had suffered a concussion during a collision with West Virginia tailback Quincy Wilson, followed by Manning’s head hitting the turf.

To Manning, the hit seemed no different than any of the other blows he had taken during his career. He didn’t leave the field and he never reported anything to the coaches during or after the game. Had he not been wearing the HIT System-equipped helmet, Manning would have been viewed as a player having a bad day instead of becoming the first person to have a concussion recorded by HIT System technology.

"The technology is spectacular, because for the first time it allows us to evaluate these hits in real time," says Dr. Gunnar Brolinson, Team Physician for Virginia Tech football. "It’s an opportunity to prevent players from sustaining additional blows to the head after having sustained a concussive load to the brain."

The HIT System is part of a study Virginia Tech is participating in to better understand what type of collisions cause concussions and who is most at risk. Last fall, Virginia Tech football players took turns wearing the special helmets and researchers collected a computer full of data.

One finding that surprised Brolinson and his colleagues was the number of forceful hits that offensive and defensive linemen experience during a game—sometimes 50 or 60. "Almost any linemen you talk to—high school, college, or professional—will tell you about headaches following games. We have previously thought these were simple muscle tension headaches, and that may in fact be the case, but given the number of blows and amount of loading sustained over the course of a game, we want to investigate that more thoroughly.

"Ultimately what we want to do is predict risk of concussion based on the directionality of the blow and the load that is sustained, and then evaluate the athlete accordingly," continues Brolinson. "We want to identify the at-risk player based on the magnitude of the blow and we would also like to identify the at-risk player based on the cumulative blows."

While the current cost of the HIT System is $165,000 to $195,000 for a team of 50 to 75 players, Brolinson is confident that over time, the system will be accessible for more mainstream use. Hospital emergency rooms might have the software and could read the data on suspect hits instead of the high school having to buy the complete system.

During the 2003 season the system was used strictly as a research gathering tool, but by next season, Virginia Tech plans to outfit 64 helmets with accelerometers and begin using the system to help diagnose concussions.

For more information on the HIT System and other advances in concussion research go to and enter "Heads in the Game" into the search window.