Traumatic Brain Injury Prevention and Rehab Options on the Rise

Trent Edwards of the Bills and others continue to fight TBI injuries

Starting Quarterback Trent Edwards #5 of the Buffalo Bills suffers a concussion
Donald Miralle / Getty Images

When former NFL Buffalo Bills quarterback Trent Edwards sustained a concussion during a game against the Arizona Cardinals in 2008, many fans believe he was never the same. Edwards is now the vice president for product and research development at STRIVR—a startup that's developing virtual reality technology athletes can use to improve their training and build confidence and trust—something Trent Edwards is said to have lost after his injury.

The NFL has started paying serious attention to head injuries. Repeated blows to the head carry an immense risk. While some consequences can be observed in the days and weeks post-injury, the cumulative effect of repeated brain trauma often shows only after the players retire and start experiencing health problems, including changes to the brain's white matter and neurodegenerative diseases.

To combat the concussion epidemic in the NFL, brain trauma experts have suggested impact-measuring helmet sensors. There has, however, been some controversy around the use of these sensors—some experts doubted the accuracy of initial models—which has prevented the NFL from integrating this technology into its helmets.

More accurate sensors are now being designed, as well as other diagnostic tools that can guide concussion assessment. There have also been greater efforts to increase concussion awareness and educate players and coaches about the signs and symptoms of a concussion, so brain injuries can get promptly reported and properly managed.

Research on Impact Sensors

A lot of resources are being poured into developing more advanced and accurate technologies in brain injury treatment and rehabilitation. Since active-duty soldiers are often exposed to head concussions, the U.S. Army has a vested interest in developing novel systems that can detect and prevent traumatic brain injuries (TBI). In fact, they have been working closely with the NFL in developing sensors that can be fitted in helmets, cars, and on torsos with the goal of helping doctors assess an individual after they've experienced a military blast.

Some impact sensors use a traffic-light-type warning system: green for normal impact, yellow for moderate exposure, and red for serious exposure. In this way, service members (or athletes) can be monitored and not sent back into action (or onto the field of play) if they have sustained a potentially serious impact and need to recuperate.

One example of modern technology for concussion detection is the CheckLight, designed by the electronics design company MC10 in partnership with Reebok. Aimed specifically at athletes, it works as a head-impact indicator and can be worn with or without a helmet, so it measures blows to the head and not just the helmet. The CheckLight visually displays the severity of a particular blow (red is used for severe impacts), making it easier for coaches, parents, and athletes to make decisions regarding the care needed after an impact.

Offering another option, researchers from the NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City presented a diagnostic tool that can track eye movements to assess brain function and increases the objectivity of measuring impacts to the head. Experts hope that tools like this could help reduce the number of missed cases.

Mobile Apps That Can Help TBI Patients

Brain injuries are a widespread problem that can affect anyone at any time, changing the course of their lives and presenting the patient and their families with unforeseeable challenges, like learning disabilities and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

A 2010 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that in the U.S. 1.7 million people sustain a traumatic brain injury each year—ranging from mild concussions to potentially fatal brain injuries—and that TBIs account for a third of injury-related deaths in the country.

Often, tasks that used to be second nature can become daunting endeavors and habitual skills difficult to execute. But digital technology can help. Mobile apps, like those listed below, can potentially benefit people with a TBI re-learn and/or improve cognitive abilities such as memory, concentration, and communication skills.

  • Yes/No: This app can help those with severe communication problems by enabling the user to give yes and no replies with the push of a button.
  • Audible: A modern version of a book on tape, this app has a library of audiobooks, which can be useful for those coping with visual reading difficulties.
  • Breathe2Relax: Mood and behavior issues can often be a symptom of TBI. This stress management tool offers diaphragmatic breathing exercises.
  • Behavior Tracker Pro: Though targeted to those with autism, this app can be helpful for a range of behaviors, tracking and graphing changes over time.

Moving Towards Smart Treatment Options

The prognosis and protocol for TBI depend on the circumstance of the individual and the severity of the injury. The Europe-based TBIcare Project research initiative is taking this into account as it develops a predictive model that potentially will be used in emergency units. The model aims to help determine which brain injuries to treat first, how to treat them, as well as customizing an individual’s stabilization and recovery process.

Data from hundreds of TBI patients are being gathered and analyzed. The hope being that eventually doctors may have access to an algorithmic-based system that can advise them on the most effective course of treatment. This new, evidence-based approach to TBI will combine statistical models and simulation techniques with the promise of more accurate diagnoses and treatments of TBI in the future.

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