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New 'Hit Count' System Aims to Reduce Head Injuries in Contact Sports

The Sports Legacy Institute unveiled a new system on Monday that will monitor the amount of head contact a student-athlete receives in an effort to reduce the likelihood of concussions and long-term brain damage.

Using sensors inside the helmets of student-athletes, the "Hit Count" program will tally the number of head impacts endured above a specific threshold established by the SLI's science and education committee. The first iteration of the system will register a "hit" when peak acceleration exceeds 20 g's, or 20 times the force of gravity, in a 40-millisecond window, per an accompanying whitepaper.

"Based on current knowledge, 20 g's is the ideal threshold because it is the lowest level that will capture abnormal acceleration of the head while not registering normal head movement in sports, which is currently believed to be safe," the committee concluded in the white paper.

The committee sought to establish a threshold that only captured abnormal head movements in sports. Per the whitepaper, certain sports-specific head movements can exceed 15 g's, but there is currently no evidence of normal activities causing acceleration of 20 g's or more. Most concussions register around 60 g's, while concussive impacts average 80 to 120 g's, according to the committee.

The Boston-based institute initially proposed the idea of a "hit count" back in February 2012, drawing inspiration from "pitch counts" that aim to reduce the wear-and-tear on baseball pitchers' elbows. At the time, the institute suggested that no athlete under 18 years of age "be exposed to more than 1,000 hits to the head exceeding 10 g's of force in a season, and no more than 2,000 times in a year."

During the official launch of the Hit Count program yesterday, however, the institute acknowledged that there's no science to currently support a maximum number of impacts a student-athlete should endure in a given season or year.

What does the launch of this system mean for middle and high schools? Bleacher Report injury expert Will Carroll explains:

"It is not going to be cheap. While the NFL could quickly outfit all 32 teams and not miss the cash, high schools in many areas are already strapped for cash. While some areas are building huge stadiums and growing, this could put pressure on smaller programs and create a major division between the haves and have-nots.

"Larger, richer schools don't deserve better protections for their players than smaller programs. In fact, it could create downward pressure on some of these schools to drop football. One possible solution is to have multiple schools pool their talent and have one team, but this would reduce participation as well. "

As Carroll later notes, the Hit Count program is not a replacement for having proper medical care on hand during athletic events. However, some budget-strapped school administrators could end up having to choose between such a program or having athletic trainers present, which could prove problematic in its own right.

It's a potentially exciting first step for the reduction of concussions and head injuries in contact sports that require helmets, but the Hit Count program is by no means a silver bullet. Much like how computerized neuropsychological tests should only be one part of a multi-faceted approach to concussion diagnosis and treatment, this program shouldn't be seen as a replacement for all previously established concussion protocols. It could prove an incredibly valuable asset in data collection, but it won't replace the role of trained healthcare professionals.

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