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When the Ravens and the 49ers collide in the Super Bowl this Sunday, a Seattle start-up's technology will be used to determine if a player has a concussion after a bone-jarring hit.
The same company, X2 Biosystems, has also developed skin patches and mouth guards that can detect concussions and could become standard gear in the future.
Along with all the hype surrounding the Super Bowl, the debate continues over the violence of the game and how to make football safer. This week, even President Obama weighed in on the issue, saying that if he had a son, he would have to think long and hard about whether he would allow him to play.
Thousands of former NFL players are already suing the league over head injuries suffered during their playing days. The NFL has taken steps to address the concussion crisis, including a new agreement it has with X2 Biosystems.
Both teams in the Super Bowl will be using the company's Concussion Management System software application. After a player gets a jolt to the head, trainers can assess their condition on the sidelines, using data on their short and long term memory, motor skills and other medical information.
"That player's results will be compared in real time by the sideline staff to their baseline performance on those tests. If there's a discrepancy in any of the sections of that test, that's when a decision will be made as to whether the player will be removed from the game," says company president Christoph Mack.
The software is already being used by 16 NFL teams and Mack says it will be mandatory for all 32 teams next season.
The company has also been busy, producing its impact sensing mouth guards, called the X-Guard, and its latest addition, the X-Patch, a skin patch worn behind the ear that is about the size of a nickel.
Both have sensors that record what happens inside a player's head when it gets smacked around. They can show whether the impact was above a certain magnitude or threshold.
"We then take that data, process it on board the devices, and use an on board radio to send that information to a sideline base station, up to the internet and our cloud-based data base, and then distribute it to smart phones and tablets," says Mack.
The team trainer or doctor will get an alert and can test the player to determine the severity of the hit and whether they need to sit out, get medical help, and when it's safe to return to play. Returning too soon after a concussion can have devastating, if not deadly effects.
"The thing that's so difficult about concussions is that there is no objective standard for diagnosis. You can't look at a CAT scan or an MRI and say, 'Aha! there's a concussion' and the flip side is, you also can't look at them and say concussion is absent," says Mack.
The CDC estimates there are nearly 4 million sports related brain injuries each year and more than 250,000 concussions occur every year from high school football alone.
That's why Mack says there's such a huge demand for their technology. X-2s mouth guards and skin patches are in the final stages of testing by the NFL but they're already being used by the football teams at the University of Washington, University of Michigan, and Stanford's football, soccer and lacrosse teams.
"We're here to make sure that kids can play hard but we can also make decisions that they play safer and that they don't, inadvertently, through excess zeal and love of the game, end up with lasting medical problems," says Mack.
The company is hoping to start selling the X-guards and X-patches to the public later this year but Mack says the first sales will likely be invitation only because they already have a back-log of orders from schools and leagues all across the country.