New device may help detect athletes’ concussions on sidelines

Millions of athletes experience concussions every year, yet there is currently no objective test to diagnose these injuries from the sidelines. As a result, many concussions go undetected, and players often reenter games prematurely, putting them at risk for serious health consequences.

However, a new device developed by researchers at San Diego State University in California may offer a solution. The team, led by Daniel Goble, has developed a technology capable of objectively measuring an athlete’s ability to balance – a key indicator of a concussion.

According to Goble, when a person experiences a head injury, it triggers a complex series of neurophysiological reactions.

“Once these changes happen, they do show up in your behavior,” Goble, an exercise and nutritional sciences professor, told “And one thing in particular, your balance, will be altered by changes in brain.”

Previously, diagnosing concussions has been a difficult and often error-ridden process for trainers, athletes and coaches.

“The first thing that was tried for the last 40 years was asking athletes about symptoms. Typically, they’d ask, ‘Do you feel nauseous? Do you have a headache?’ Any bodily symptoms we know go with a concussion,” Goble said. “Except athletes want to stay on the field, so they tend to lie about these things.”

In an attempt to develop a more accurate test, trainers started utilizing balance tests on the sidelines, asking injured athletes to perform tasks like standing on one foot while trainers assessed them.

“The problem with that is if you have two trainers watch, they will often come up with different scores.  Even if the same trainer watches somebody on a video a week later, they’ll come up with a different score,” Goble said. “We wanted to take it out of the trainer’s hands and create something fully objective that could score balance test for us.”

With this goal in mind, Goble and his team developed a new technology, called B-TrackS, that offers a way for trainers to more accurately and objectively diagnose concussions on the sidelines. Comprised of a simple balance board and software program, the system tracks how much a person sways while standing.

Though similar systems exist, many are very expensive, costing up to $10,000 per unit, and they are not easily transportable, making it difficult for trainers to utilize them during games.

In a study soon to be published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, Goble tested his B-TrackS system against the more expensive model.

“We had some healthy people stand on the board and do the test, versus the $10,000 version, and were able to show that our version is 99 percent accurate (at assessing balance),” Goble said.

Previous studies have shown that the more expensive balance board systems seem to be accurate at diagnosing concussions, leading Goble to believe that his B-TrackS system will also prove effective.  Additionally, he hopes it will someday retail for under $1,000, making it a more practical alternative for coaches and trainers.

This fall, Goble will put his B-TrackS system to the test, using it to assess injuries incurred by members of the men’s soccer, men’s rugby and women’s water polo teams at SDSU. Currently, Goble is in the midst of performing simple, two-minute baseline balance assessments on the members of each team.

“It seems like the healthy, college-aged kid will score a 20 – and that number represents the number of centimeters of sway over the course of a single 20 second trial. So, maybe a foot in distance,” Goble said. “With a concussion, I would guess that might double, depending on severity.”

As concussions or injuries occur throughout the season, the team’s trainers will have B-TrackS systems on hand to measure athletes’ balance scores post-injury, comparing them to the baseline scores to determine whether or not a head injury has occurred.

“We’ll equip all the trainers with their own device, but what we would like is to do it on the field after an injury and then follow up 24 hours later, then 72 hours later, hoping that balance will return down before they let them get back in the game,” Goble said.

Though the device is still in the early phases of testing, Goble hopes it will eventually prove useful as a cheap, effective way to diagnose concussions – preventing athletes from risking more serious injury on the field.

“There’s something called second-impact syndrome and that’s a condition where you get a second concussion before the first one has healed or resolved. And that is a really dangerous thing,” Goble said. “There’s a high percentage of people for whom the second one is a very severe injury where you can even die from it.”