Around the time I began my new job in the Department of Neuroscience, BMX rider Brett Banasiewicz sustained traumatic brain injury (TBI) from a crash. That was when I started to connect the dots between science and action sports with the realization that not only could action sports make science more interested, but science could help action sports. Too many action sports athletes were sustaining terrible injuries that they couldn’t just bounce back from. The impact of TBI on football players had generated a lot of buzz, but what about the other sports?
Last February, I went to the 2014 Paul M. Bass Neurosurgery Symposium on Traumatic Brain Injury to learn about the latest treatments and prevention methods and to find a way to pass this onto the action sports community. We don’t have a single governing body like the NHL or NFL even though medical staff at events have been doing a wonderful job. Worse is that kids aren’t doing this at school or in a club so the environment can’t be controlled. Sure we have Camp Woodward, but you also have kids who go to the parks on their own or just hit the streets. The action sports community has to educate itself, as well as the doctors who don’t know what someone was doing to have wound up with an injury or the rationale behind wanting to recover ASAP (I’m reminded of the scene in The Crash Reel where Kevin Pearce argues with his family and doctor about hitting the slopes again).
The Crash Reel and Kevin’s story also helped spark my interest in neuroscience research related to TBI.
Probably the most relevant fact I learned from the symposium was that helmets don’t prevent concussions. But don’t ditch your helmet just yet! They do help against head injuries as a whole by preventing skull fractures and hemorrhaging, but they do nothing to keep the brain from getting jostled inside the skull. Therefore, we need to start examining other ways to minimize TBI in addition to promoting helmet use.
In the case of football, the best proposed solution was modified behavior. Players are learning the proper technique to tackle and block while coaches keep an eye on risky habits that need correction. Now action sports outside of the Olympics generally don’t utilize coaches, but newcomers have to learn from somebody (or something). It is important to pass along knowledge of how to fall in a way that minimizes injury and to know the techniques behind moves like the double cork which bring the head close to another object. Although it’s fun to see people hucking big tricks, a little bit of planning could save a life.
Scientists and doctors are working to better address when injuries do happen. The 4th International Conference on Concussion in Sport has released definitions and guidelines for proper diagnosis, treatment, and management. Less than 10% of TBIs result in loss of consciousness so I recommend looking at their list of symptoms to know whether your friend should go to the hospital.
The symposium also introduced ways scientists have been studying TBI. Most of the research has focused on football players and military veterans even though the majority of TBI actually results from falls and car crashes. I decided to look up any possible studies involving action sports, and to my surprise, I found that Weber State University students used Dew Tour competitors for their subjects last year. The linked article discusses looking at the athletes’ blood for biomarkers, which can be anything from genes, enzymes, cells, or even a measurement (think blood pressure). TBI, or any sort of injury, triggers cell death so scientists can look at neurons for damage or check for the contents that dead cells release.
This past season, the students also employed the Shockbox, helmet sensors that detect head acceleration upon impact. The results could be used to determine course changes that would keep athletes from hitting their heads as hard. The takehome message is that we all have to work together to make action sports safer without having to compromise the fun of pushing the human body.