Concussions have become hockey’s white whale in recent years, but in the search for a solution, doctors and innovators have actually been looking at woodpeckers and bighorn sheep. Specifically, what the brains of those beasts can tell us about elastic collisions.
Elastic collisions are good…OK, they’re better than inelastic collisions, let’s put it that way. Inelastic collisions send shock waves through the brain, whipping it against the skull. With elastic collisions, the energy passes through the body instead – it’s the difference between getting into a car accident without seatbelts or airbags versus one with those safety measures. In terms of the human brain, inelastic collisions cause brain slosh, where the force of the impact is made worse by the fluids surrounding the brain taking on their own energy.
“We want the brain tighter to the skull,” said Dr. Gregory Myer of the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, “so the energy passes through.”
So what’s up with the woodpeckers? The unique birds hit their heads (beaks) against trees an estimated 85 million times in their lifespan, yet they do not get concussions. Scientists have determined that the major reason is that birds’ brains do not float in their skulls (they’re also smaller than human brains, which helps).
This is where the hockey industry comes in. Dr. Myer was one of two specialists brought in by Bauer to talk about the equipment company’s latest gambit, a neck collar called the NeuroShield which aims to cut down on sub-concussive events, or repetitive hits. It was created by a firm called Q30 Innovations and Bauer is licensing the product for commercial use. “Immediately I was skeptical,” said Jamie Eno, senior director of Bauer Hockey. “Because it was inspired by woodpeckers.”
But humanity owes a great debt to a variety of animals who have given us scientific insight. Heck, naked mole rats may be the key to defeating cancer (look it up; I’m not kidding).
The NeuroShield’s purpose is to slightly increase the amount of blood in the brain by putting pressure on the jugular vein (which carries blood out of our heads).
“We’re putting a kink in the hose,” said Dr. Myer.
This mirrors the lives of bighorn sheep, which migrate to higher altitudes, forcing more blood to rush into their heads. These sheep also bash their skulls against each other on the regular. Dr. Myers noted that studies have found a 30 percent reduction in concussion rates for NFLers and high schoolers that play at higher altitudes (so, play for the Denver Broncos, I guess?), which is pretty interesting.
But the NeuroShield cannot prevent concussions. Bauer is very upfront about that. What the company and the doctors they have enlisted believe, is that the collar can prevent the structural change of the brain due to sports-related impacts, because helmets don’t cut it.
“The cranium is, in many ways a hydraulic system,” said Dr. Julian Bailes, a top American neurosurgeon. “Fluid buoys the brain. The brain gets injured by moving and a helmet cannot prevent movement.”
What a hockey helmet can do is prevent skull fractures and superficial wounds – important functions, to be sure – but it is of less use when it comes to concussions.
As for the NeuroShield collar, Bauer and the doctors hope it can also help keep youth participation in contact sports such as football (both Myer and Bailes are big fans) and hockey from falling off a cliff in the coming years. Concussions are indeed scary and it’s impossible not to note that Bauer sells hockey equipment for a living. For Hall of Famer Mark Messier (who works with Bauer on grassroots initiatives), a future where the next generation is physically inactive doesn’t sit well.
“It’s frightening,” Messier said. “Kids’ decisions on what sport they play shouldn’t be based on fear.”
But it is a reality that football in particular is facing and clearly Bauer doesn’t want hockey to reach that fever point. The NeuroShield will cost $199 in Canada and is recommended for kids as young as seven. Will parents pony up that amount? Hockey is already a very expensive sport. Will players – including influential NHLers – wear something that feels like someone putting their hand around the back of your neck? Ultimately, the market will decide…but clearly the equipment and medical industries aren’t going to just sit back and let that market shrivel due to the terrible potentials behind concussions.
“There is hope,” Messier said. “There is a future.”