The announcement that Liverpool and Manchester City are to trial a high-tech mouthguard for a new study into heading is the latest move in football’s efforts to tackle the mounting controversy about player safety. NR Times meets the creators of the revolutionary Protecht mouthguard
With the links between sports like rugby and football and head injuries causing later-life neurological problems becoming increasingly clear, such globally-loved sports are facing some huge challenges.
Played by global icons who are adored by millions, the emphasis is increasingly shifting onto what may await them further down the line, after a career during which they will undoubtedly sustain regular head impacts through heading the ball, colliding with other players or falling to the ground.
Currently, a number of celebrated rugby players are involved in a landmark legal action over claims the sport has left them with lasting brain damage. And recently, former Leeds Rhinos captain Stevie Ward retired from the sport aged only 27, due to the lasting effects of concussion, which he said have left him unable to exercise at all without aggravating his symptoms.
Football also came firmly into the picture last year, following a groundbreaking research project by Dr Willie Stewart, consultant neuropathologist at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, Glasgow, which revealed that footballers were three-and-a-half times more likely to die of neurodegenerative disease than age-matched members of the general population.
As former England striker Chris Sutton assessed: “Premier League clubs nowadays have members of staff who monitor everything from how many sprints you made in a match to how much sleep you got last night. They measure the lot. Yet what is not measured is potentially the most important thing — what is happening to your head on a day to day basis. I find that remarkable.”
Change clearly needs to happen, both to safeguard those currently playing sports, as well as the future generations. Failure to act could, say experts, impact on the willingness of parents to allow their children to participate, adversely affecting the future of such mainstream sports from grassroots level upwards.
While only a seismic change in how football and rugby are played can prevent any form of head injuries happening – and with trials for concussion substitutes in football underway in the Premier League – the ability to gain greater insight into what is happening to players on the pitch in real time is a crucial intervention.
And that is where a new invention comes in, adding a high-tech twist to old-school sports equipment to result in a creation which could help to revolutionise safety in contact sport.
Following extensive testing and development, and the creation of market-leading software, Swansea-based startup SWA has devised Protecht, a mouth guard which contains the technology to convey information to pitch side computers in real time, telling them instantly the level of impact a player has sustained.
Through being able to measure the force and impact of every head impact – collecting 102 milliseconds of information around the head trauma, of which three milliseconds will be the actual impact – a club’s medical team can be fully informed and make evidence-based decisions over whether someone needs to be examined, replaced or protected.
Rugby has been keen to act, with Protecht in use by a host of Premiership clubs. Boxers and MMA fighters have also begun to use the high-tech mouth guard.
Now, with the announcement about Liverpool and Manchester City taking part in a trial of the mouth guard, perhaps football is set to follow suit.
“This is a brand new area for football, where mouth guards are not commonly used, but we are starting to come onto their radar and we hope that’s where it’s going,” says Chris Turner, chief executive of SWA.
“In rugby, which is where we started, we’ve made great strides there. We hear from the clubs who use Protecht that it’s working very well. We heard from one club who did a two-day training cycle, one light impact and one heavy. Through being able to see the data we collect, they realised they were actually both the same.
“Studies are showing that when players hit each other there is very little impact, the greater impact comes when they hit the floor. That kind of insight is hugely valuable.
“It could be that one player has a series of impacts in the first half of a match, and handles those impacts very well, and their neck strength can cope with that. But into the second half, that neck strength and endurance starts to evaporate, and the impact of these impacts is doubled. We’ve never had the real time data to tell us that before.
“From the sidelines, for the first time it can be seen in great detail what is going on with players, and the impacts they are taking. The information from their mouth guards is passed on in real time and decoded there and then.”
Professor Mike Loosemore, a leading figure in sport and exercise medicine and concussion expert, who has advised SWA on the creation of their mouth guard, believes the adoption of Protecht can be vital in attributing where head injuries come from.
“It can help us understand what needs to be changed, particularly in football. A lot of sports are starting to adopt concussion protocols, but football has not really been at the forefront of the head injury and concussion debate until more recently,” he says.
“Although heading the football means the head impacts with the ball, can we really attribute heading the football to head injuries? We have found in other sports that head injuries have not been caused not by the impact itself, but by the subsequent collision from falling onto the ground.
“Maybe it’s that we just don’t know, and to take a decision like banning heading in football would change the sport hugely. And if you stop heading, which will make players’ necks weaker, this may lead to an increase in head injuries from falling down. This mouth guard will have a huge impact in finding out exactly where the head injury has come from.”
While its positive impact in safeguarding players is already being seen by sports professionals – “It allows us to build a pool of data on how much contact they tend to take in a week, per training session and in a game,” says Harlequins’ head of medical Mike Lancaster – the impact of the absence from sport for any period of time means they need to be afforded even greater protection, says Chris.
“Many players are returning to contact after an absence due to COVID, or perhaps an injury, and that can have a big impact. We can collect an enormous amount of data to show how they are conditioned after an absence, how they are reacting and dealing with impact, and this can be of huge importance when raising the intensity,” says Chris, who previously held executive roles at Unilever and SAP before starting SWA.
“It can be very useful in helping a team manager to manage players. A healthy player is a good player, and returning to sport after COVID does pose risks. Athletes, during a period away can become deconditioned, and are more susceptible to injuries, including head injuries,” agrees Professor Loosemore.
“This mouth guard can alert you to that. The technology behind this is very advanced, and we can see in real time, as it happens, the need to protect athletes, particularly when returning to contact after an absence.”
With adoption at the highest levels of English rugby, clearly clubs see Protecht as a key factor in ensuring the safety of their players. But is this the solution to the problem of the consequences of head injuries in sport?
“Through being able to relay this real time information through these 102 millisecond waves around a head impact, we are helping to increase understanding around where head injuries come from and are putting this information directly into the hands of club doctors and their teams,” says Chris.
“This will help more people to play sports more safely. We want to help protect future generations.
“We have spent a lot of time and money developing the mouth guard, testing it, ensuring it is reliable and accurate, and we are very pleased with its impact and the feedback we are receiving from those who are using it.”
“I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but I’m glad my brain tumour happened in a way”
After Helen Bulbeck’s daughter Megan was diagnosed with a brain tumour, the whole family was left isolated with little to no support. Now she is using this experience, plus her own journey with cancer, to help run the UK’s leading brain tumour support charity Brainstrust.
“It was at the time when Rohypnol was doing the rounds in the local pub, so I just thought maybe her drink had been spiked.”
This was Helen Bulbeck’s initial reaction to her daughter, Megan, collapsing after a night out and being omitted to A&E in 2006.
She later realised that it was the start of a lengthy battle, as MRI scans revealed Megan had a brain tumour.
To complicate matters, surgeons opted not to operate unless the tumour showed signs of developing.
And so began Megan’s monthly brain scans, all while she was completing a History of Art degree.
“University was where Megan’s priorities were,” Helen tells NR Times. “The main focus at that point was to get her epileptic episodes under control.
“We weren’t referred to a neurosurgeon until the following January – that’s six months after her first episode.
“We were completely out of our depth; we had no idea what was going on. We had been told in October that she had a brain tumour, but that was it.”
It was the lack of available support that really concerned and surprised Helen.
“There was nothing,” she says, when asked about the help they received after Megan’s diagnosis. “We were just left in a vacuum.
“That’s what I couldn’t understand, because if you’re diagnosed with breast cancer, you’re assigned a clinical nurse specialist. We didn’t have that.
“I spent a long time on the internet trying to find where the support and information was and I desperately needed to talk to somebody about the impact that this diagnosis had, but there was nobody.”
Helen was left on her own in search of a solution for Megan, spending countless hours learning more about brain tumours and possible treatments.
This led her to discover neurosurgeon Peter Black from Boston, who agreed to operate on the tumour after a consultation.
The severity of brain tumours is graded from one to four. Black was the first surgeon to tell Megan she had a grade two tumour, but it could transform into a higher grade within five years, with the consequences being potentially fatal.
With that in mind Megan decided she would have the tumour removed. Because of the risks involved with the surgery, however, the procedure was delayed until after she had finished her studies.
Through all this Helen was fighting her own battle after being told she had head and neck cancer.
She quickly underwent radiotherapy and surgery, knowing she needed to stay strong for her daughter.
“I was just focused on getting fit so that I could go with Meg to America for the surgery.”
Helen was able to make a full recovery, but then faced the challenge of funding Megan’s £30,000 surgery.
Megan’s group of friends were desperate to help and agreed to do some fundraising, eventually smashing their target and generating £70,000.
After this, things finally started to run smoothly. Megan was able to finish her degree and successfully underwent surgery in 2007 which saw her tumour removed.
“We had such a good story and we’d learned so much,” Helen says. “We thought we’ve got one of two options; we can either go back to our lives as they were and donate what we’ve got left to another charity. Or we can use those funds to set up a charity which was going to close the gap in the marketplace.
“Who do you turn to the day you’re told you have a brain tumour? There’s nobody out there and we didn’t want people to feel as lost as we did.”
From this Brainstrust was born.
Starting off simply as a helpline, the charity has evolved into a support trust with UK-wide reach, developing communities to reduce isolation, build resilience and enable people to live the life they want.
It focuses on providing evidence based information around brain tumours and its support specialists can point people to the correct resources, without forcing anything upon them.
“The only other charities that existed at that time were all to do with lab-based research, there was no charity out there where you could pick up the phone and ask for help.
“Because we have that experience, we knew what the information was that people would want to hear.
“Meg and I knew what it meant to be both a patient and a caregiver, so we used that 360 degree perspective to support others.”
Since then Brainstrust has gone on to support thousands of patients and their families.
The vast majority (93 per cent) of those that contacted the charity reported a positive outcome, with nearly 1,000 new patients engaging with it in 2019.
Since its founding in 2006, care around brain tumours has drastically improved.
It is the most common form of cancer that affects those under 40 and it is one that is rising at the fastest rate in over 65s.
Discussing how attitudes to brain tumours have changed, Helen says that new technologies can lead the way to better outcomes.
“Your first line treatment with a brain tumour should always be, where possible, neurosurgery. That was what saved our daughter’s life.
“I think the technology is absolutely key and probably until the last five years, that’s been hugely ignored, but it is catching up.
“In terms of the actual therapies, I think with radiotherapy we’ve made huge advances.”
Despite this progress, Helen says there are still huge differences between the treatment of brain tumour patients and those with other cancers and conditions.
She draws on the example of post-stroke rehab and the general care stroke survivors receive.
“Stroke patients get a wonderful wraparound reablement service and I’d love to see brain cancer having a parity.
“I find that some of the attitudes are a bit nihilistic, as in if you’re diagnosed with a glioblastoma people tend to see this as life limiting with a poor prognosis so it’s not worth investing in. I think it absolutely is.
“That’s the one thing I would love to be able to transform, the day somebody has a brain tumour,
they immediately get that same wraparound care.”
Megan is currently living a happy and healthy life since her surgery, being able to get married and gifting Helen with two granddaughters.
She still undergoes regular brain scans and, after becoming a qualified coach with Brainstrust, she is now training to become a psychodynamic psychotherapist (a discipline involving the interpretation of mental and emotional processes rather than focusing on behaviour).
Reflecting on her journey Helen describes her pride in the work they had done so far, but admits there is still much work to be done.
“It’s been a highly emotional rollercoaster at times, we get very tired but it’s not a job it’s a vocation.
“It’s important not to forget that before we’re patients, we’re people and I think the more we can get clinicians to recognise that sitting in front of them is a person not a patient, then that person is going to be much more resilient.
“Just hearing the testimonials of the impact that our work has had is what keeps us going.
“I will always remember Meg saying to me ‘I would never wish a brain tumour on anybody, but in a way I’m glad this has happened because of what we’ve achieved.’”
Loneliness in lockdown – how have survivors been impacted?
Loneliness in lockdown among brain injury survivors is the subject of a new research study which hopes to shine a light on the ongoing issue of isolation.
While loneliness for the wider population was something rarely previously experienced prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, for those living with a brain injury, the everyday reality is often very different.
And through this new study, researchers hope to discover the true effect the pandemic and its necessity for survivors to stay at home – and in some instances shield for several months – has had and how their protective factors have impacted on that.
The project, by the University of Sunderland in conjunction with Headway, is currently gathering participants for its pioneering research, which will compare the experiences of people living with brain injury to those without.
Led by Dr Stephen Dunne, who has a long-standing research interest in social factors which affect brain injury and stroke survivors, he hopes it will both raise awareness of the ongoing issue of loneliness many people face, as well as helping to inspire action.
“There is a dual focus to this project – loneliness is something known to the masses now more than ever before; it’s not just something felt by a particular part of the population. For a neurotypical individual, I think it has shown what life can be like to be lonely in ways they may never have known previously.
“An important point of our research is to try and understand how, for people with brain injury, their loneliness and their perceptions of loneliness have been affected during the pandemic – has this been heightened over the past year and been exacerbated by lockdown?
“Or have they actually felt less lonely than neurotypical individuals, as they have had the experience pre-pandemic of adapting to life like this, and already have the support strategies in place?
“But crucially, the future of this project isn’t to define loneliness, understand its impact, then drop it – we want to understand it so that we can facilitate the removal of barriers so we can bring about strategic improvements to the wellbeing of people living with brain injury.”
Dr Dunne and his team are seeking brain injury survivors nationally to take part in the research, which will be done by a survey: https://sunduni.eu.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_czH5B8R5kieDgQR and an optional additional interview with the team remotely via Microsoft Teams.
“We’re at a crucial stage now where we appear to be coming out of restrictions, but the experiences of the past year are still very real for so many people,” adds Dr Dunne.
“We want to do this at the right time, before reintegration into society starts to happen and we are looking retrospectively, so we’re keen to hear the experiences of as many people as possible.
“We want to better understand loneliness and its impact, so we can help to bring about change for the future. Understanding the journey of brain injury survivors over the past year is a key part of us being able to do that.”
For further information about the research study, or to share experiences through an interview with the research team, contact Stephen.Dunne@sunderland.ac.uk
Temporary concussion substitutes ‘must be introduced by June 1’
Temporary concussion substitutes must be included in the current trials underway in the Premier League to safeguard the safety of players, players’ unions said today.
FIFPRO and the PFA have called for the introduction of temporary substitutes no later than June 1, and for the scope of the 18-month trial – which enables a team to replace a player who has sustained concussion, but on a permanent basis – be extended to include parallel trials for temporary substitutions.
In an open letter to IFAB, football’s lawmakers, FIFPRO – which represents over 65,000 professional footballers worldwide – and the PFA highlighted the cases of West Ham United’s Issa Diop and Sheffield United’s George Baldock in making their case.
“Player safety and welfare is paramount, and should be the only priority,” they say in their letter.
While both bodies were supportive of the permanent concussion trials when introduced, such incidents – added to the new FIFPRO poll, which shows 83 per cent of 96 professional football club doctors at top-flight European club believe temporary substitutes should form part of future protocol – have shown that action needs to be taken.
“In England, since the trial began, we are aware of two incidents where a temporary substitution option would have better protected players,” states the letter.
“In each case, the players suffered from a head injury but, following an initial on-field assessment, continued to play. They were subsequently removed when it emerged their head injury was worse than first thought.
“These cases underline our concern that permanent substitutions do not give medical teams the appropriate environment to assess a player with a potentially serious head injury.
“The reality of the in-game situation is loaded with pressure. Medical teams can be presented with a situation where a globally broadcast match is on hold, awaiting their assessment. They have to make a potentially game-altering decision in a multi-billion-pound industry.
“We have no doubt medical teams act in the sole interests of the players. However, the rules do not do enough to support medical personnel. Pressure on them will be amplified with the return of crowds.”
The letter states that the inclusion of temporary concussion substitutions, which they propose should be tested in parallel with the current trial, will:
- Provide medical teams with additional assessment time
- Allow for the assessment to take place in an appropriate environment
- Permit a match to restart with neither side numerically disadvantaged
- Reduce pressure on players and medical staff to make quick decisions.
“In December 2020, we welcomed the decision by IFAB to invite competitions to trial permanent concussion substitutions,” FIFPRO and the PFA state.
“At the same time, we have remained in favour of testing temporary concussion substitutions. This has been our position for many years.
“Since the beginning of IFAB’s permanent concussion substitute trial, we have seen several incidents where the new laws of the game have fallen short of their objective and jeopardised player health and safety.”
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