Local organizations team with UPMC to analyze concussions

| Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013, 8:58 p.m.

Along with goals and big plays, concussions and head injuries have been a topic of conversation in hockey in recent years.

A research team with the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program is taking the first steps to analyze this trend among youth hockey players with a study sponsored by hockey equipment manufacturer Bauer.

“The goal of the study is to describe and quantify the impact forces sustained by the head in hockey players ages 12 to 17 during competitive games,” said Dr. Anthony Kontos, Assistant Research Director with the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program.

“There hasn't been a study yet that has looked at the forces to the head that are imparted into the helmet during hockey,” he said. “This will be the first study that will look at hockey and will span players from 12 to 17 years.”

The Pittsburgh Penguins Elite and Pittsburgh Vipers programs were selected to be part of the study.

Data is collected through an accelerometer attached to the hockey players' helmets.

The sensor detects and measures impact levels and transmits it to a database using Bluetooth technology.

“We are getting data in real time. We're anticipating looking at the level of forces to the head that are recorded and what the effects of those forces might be,” Kontos said.

“The data in football have been interesting. It'll be great to look at hockey for the first time and see what's being generated in a sport that's quite different from football where you have a more linear focused impact, where you have an expected direction of motion, compared to hockey, where you can kind of get hit in any direction at any time.

“The exposure, the nature of the sport and the protective equipment and everything — it'll just be very interesting to look at our data. We're really excited about this project and really thankful that Bauer was able to support this study.”

Kontos and Scott Dakan, Research Coordinator for the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program, are eager to see what the data collected yields.

“The end result is getting a better picture. It's a sport that hasn't been studied as extensively as football,” Dakan said.

“We're very interested in finding out exactly what's going on.”

Along with data collection, the players underwent concussion testing at the beginning of the season and will be tested once again when the season concludes.

“We're looking at kids who do get concussed and we'll be giving them the ImPACT neurocognitive assessment and looking at symptoms and their recovery time,” Kontos said. “We'll be testing the players at the end of the season regardless of whether they had a concussion to see if there are any effects associated with the hits they take along the way.

“We'll be combining the data from the helmet accelerometers, together with the ImPACT neurocognitive and symptom data from across the season to see if there are any changes.”

To broaden its sample, the UPMC team reached out to some of its colleagues in Boston.

High school hockey players there will be included in the test.

“When we contracted with Bauer to do this study, we talked about having more than one site, more of a representative sample,” Kontos said. “Boston is also a hockey town. We had some colleagues in Boston and they had some access to hockey, much like we did, and it seemed like a good fit.”

Locally, players are happy to take part in the completely voluntary study.

“It was pretty cool to be chosen. It's a good experience to have. I think this is the first step toward figuring out what causes concussions,” said Tim Shoup of the Penguins Elite Midget Major team. “We've had a lot of concussion trouble. It's pretty personal to our team.”

Teammate Kyle Williams knows the effects. He suffered a severe concussion last January.

“I had 8 to 10 hours of amnesia. I didn't know who I was or who my parents were. It was bad. It was a cheap hit,” he said. “It took me about three and a half months to recover, so I am glad to be a part of this study.”

The team's coach, Chris Stern, was thrilled to see his team take part.

“I know at the beginning of the year we sent out an email, because we have so many new players, to find out who had concussion issues in the past, and I think it was half the team. We've had one player who has played three games since late May because of concussions,” he said.

“It's a very serious issue, but we're fortunate that we're in the right community with the right resources both through UPMC and the Penguins and with our sponsorship with Dick's Sporting Goods to get the right helmet. The sensor fits perfectly on it. We consider ourselves very fortunate.”

In addition, the UPMC team provided video recording equipment to the teams and relies on volunteers to film the games, which can help pinpoint any major impacts.

“What we want to do is use the video to help us corroborate what we're getting from the accelerometer. I think it'll give us some information about the nature of the mechanism of the injury,” Kontos said.

“Was it a direct hit? Was it a head-to-head hit? Was it a helmet to the ice? Was it a check to the boards? All of those things that might be involved in a hockey hit that could involve the head. That'll give us a much more accurate picture than having an observer there or relying on someone to recall what happened.

“It's important that the local hockey organizations here and the ones in Boston have been very involved and should be commended for their efforts in the study and supporting what we're doing and believing in the goals of the study as well.”

Penguins center Sidney Crosby, who missed 10 and a half months with a concussion and its aftermath, is thrilled to see people are becoming more aware of the injury, which doesn't affect every person equally.

“I think everyone is doing a good job just making sure they learn as much as they can about it,” he said.

“Everywhere, I think the awareness is pretty big and it's useful to know about it. The more the parents and kids educate themselves; it's not something you can really see, you just have to be aware of the symptoms, so the more you know, the better.”

Joe Sager is a freelance writer for Trib Toal Media.

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