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Va. Tech. Expanding Sports-Concussion Research Beyond Football

Football may be the sport drawing a majority of the concussion-related headlines, but it's not by any means the only sport in which concussions occur.

In recognition of that reality, the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences announced last week that it will expand its research on testing helmets' ability to reduce the likelihood of concussions to hockey, baseball, softball, and lacrosse.

The research center expects to release ratings on hockey helmets this coming fall. New ratings for youth football helmets are expected to come out in 2015, followed by baseball-, softball-, and lacrosse-helmet ratings in 2016.

The center published new research last month in the Annals of Biomedical Engineering that introduced a new injury metric, "the combined probability of concussion," which takes into account both linear and rotational head acceleration during impacts. The new metric "determines the likelihood of sustaining a concussion for a given impact, regardless of whether the injury would be reported," according to the study abstract.

"All head impacts result in both linear and rotational accelerations, and this publication provides the foundation for our research to address both accelerations relative to reducing the risk of concussion," said Stefan Duma, the head of the research center, in a statement. "Our goal with the five-year plan is to provide manufacturers with a schedule detailing when we will release helmet ratings for each sport."

Duma said that the new ratings for football helmets (scheduled to be released in 2015) will include data for both linear and rotational accelerations. Duma collaborated with Steven Rowson, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Virginia Tech, for the Annals of Biomedical Engineering study.

The previous rating system only took into account linear acceleration in head impacts, the New York Times notes.

I've written about the work of Duma and his colleagues in the past. In Oct. 2011, the research center released initial results of their first study of youth-football helmets, finding that the frequency of the most severe impacts in youth football was "substantially lower" than in adult football. In Feb. 2012, the research center published results in the Annals of Biomedical Engineering which found that, unlike in high school and college football, the hardest hits for youth football players typically occurred during practice.

From 2001 through 2009, football resulted in the highest number of estimated annual emergency room visits (25,376) for athletes under the age of 20 when it came to traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

However, other sports weren't completely in the clear when it came to TBIs. Approximately 9,634 youth baseball players end up in the emergency room due to TBIs annually, according to the CDC, while 4,427 youth hockey players and 2,735 softball players do, too.

Even cheerleading can't escape the specter of concussions. The National Federation of State High School Associations approved a rule change last spring that banned high school cheerleaders from performing a double twist to a cradle, also known as a "double down," due to the risk of concussions.

Unfortunately, no matter how successful Duma and his colleagues are in rating the effectiveness of helmets, it's unlikely that any amount of equipment improvements will ever entirely prevent concussions. A panel of sports-science professors explained why back at the National Athletic Trainers' Association's annual meetings in 2011, and recent articles on Gizmodo and ABCNews.com only further confirmed those claims.

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