KIDS Study Examines Youth Football Head Impacts

Stitzel NFL Kid Study Former NFL star Shawn Springs; Luke Powers and his father, Alex Powers, MD; and Joel Stitzel, PhD

May 29, 2012 – Even small head impacts can lead to big problems later in life. Head injury concerns have prompted the National Football League to penalize helmet-to-helmet hits. Collegiate teams are focusing on preventing concussions. Now, the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences is launching the first study of the youngest and largest group of players exposed to head impacts—the millions of children and teenagers who play in Pop Warner football programs and on middle school and high school football teams.

“This is the first and only study of its kind looking at youth football players from 6 to 18 years old,” said Joel Stitzel, PhD, professor of Biomedical Engineering and one of five Medical Center investigators involved in the research.

The Kinematics of Impact Data Set (KIDS) study will use special helmets with sensors to collect data on head impacts for more than 240 players on six youth football teams in Virginia and North Carolina. The following researchers will join Stitzel to study Junior Pee Wee, Pee Wee, and high school teams in Forsyth County:

  • Alexander K. Powers, MD, assistant professor of Surgical Sciences (Neurosurgery),
  • Joseph A. Maldjian, MD, professor of Radiologic Sciences (Radiology),
  • Christopher T. Whitlow, MD, PhD, assistant professor of Radiologic Sciences (Radiology), and
  • Daryl A. Rosenbaum, MD, associate professor of Family and Community Medicine

How Much Impact Is Too Much?

The sports equipment maker Riddell makes helmets with impact sensors that transmit wireless signals to laptop computer monitoring software on the sidelines. The system can be set to sound an alert when a player experiences an impact exceeding a specific acceleration. However, the severity of impacts in relation to injuries remains insufficiently understood.

“One of the reasons we need to do this research is that we don’t have a diagnostic threshold,” Stitzel said. “We don’t know beyond a certain threshold when a trainer needs to take a look at a player or whether a player is going to get a concussion when a certain type of impact is experienced.”

Growing Concerns

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A 2011 Virginia Tech study of seven players on one team of 7- to 8-year-olds revealed they sometimes experienced head impacts near the severity associated with concussions in adults. The data also showed that more than half of the high-level impacts occurred during practices rather than in games. The researchers recommended eliminating high-impact drills from youth practice routines.

“That was pretty shocking news,” said Stitzel. “We don’t think younger players experience severe impacts as often as older players, but most people didn’t think kids could hit that hard. The biggest question we have is: what are the long-term consequences of those impacts?”

MRIs and Computer Modeling

In addition to wearing the special helmets, all participants in the KIDS study in North Carolina will undergo magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of their brains before the season and afterward. The researchers will also videotape each practice and game so they can review the circumstances of particular impacts.

By feeding the helmet impact data into computer models that simulate their effects on the brain, and by comparing preseason and postseason MRIs, the investigators hope to find correlations that shed more light on the relationships between impacts and injuries.

“One of the things I’m most excited about is the imaging,” Stitzel said. “We hope that this study will lead eventually to having a diagnostic type of MRI scan that could definitively identify brain changes serious enough to advise a player to sit out. The key to reducing or preventing head injuries in the future is a better understanding of the biomechanics of the head impacts the players are experiencing.”