NFL funding research into new diagnostic tools for concussions

The Athletic

October 18, 2022

The NFL is funding research into diagnostic tools that would determine whether a player has a concussion, which would be a tremendous leap from the current concussion protocols that rely on visual evidence and input from the athlete, the league said Tuesday.

The NFL’s disclosure came in the context of questions about the enhanced concussion protocols, which now include checking for ataxia in the wake of the Tua Tagovailoa situation in which he returned to play despite having an apparent head injury. Ataxia is a neurological sign with symptoms including poor muscle control of voluntary movements like walking and other fine motor skills, according to the Mayo Clinic.

“We still need to find better diagnostic tools for concussions,” said Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, speaking to reporters at the league’s fall meeting. “So, through our Scientific Advisory Board, we’re funding that research, we’ve already spent several million dollars on things like blood biomarkers and eye tracking — we’ll continue to do that. And we hope our colleagues at the Players Association will join us in really advancing those trials and trying to get some of those technologies, frankly, on the sidelines sooner rather than later so that we can use them to help with this diagnosis.

“We’d love to have a sideline tool that could help you know whether someone is concussed or not. That’s the Holy Grail if you have a concussion diagnosis.”

The league also disclosed that its efforts to change the early practice schedule in training camp appear to be having an impact. Lower extremity injuries, like hamstring, adductor and calf muscle strains, were down 26 percent in the first week-and-a-half of the preseason with new league-mandated days off.

Overall injuries fell 14 percent in the preseason, and lower extremity injuries fell 16 percent over the entire preseason, the league said. Last year at this time, the league disclosed lower extremity injuries during the preseason rose to a five-year high.

“That gives us a lot of hope that some of these things that we’re doing, we can continue to do next year,” said Jeff Miller, NFL executive vice president of health and safety.

Data on the NFL’s player and health and safety webpage shows little to no change year over year in MCL tears (30 to 29) and ACL tears (flat at 22) in the preseason. The data shows concussions essentially flat at 51 in the preseason, down from 52 in the 2021 preseason.

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