EVANSTON, IL — About 3.8 million concussions occur in the U.S. each year due to sports-related injuries.
Taking a hit to the noggin could knock your lights out. Experts say while helmets can protect the skull from fracturing, more protection is needed.
“There is no concussion-proof helmet. They can't prevent concussion,” said NorthShore University Medical Center neurosurgeon Dr. Julian Bailes, a former team doctor for the Pittsburgh Steelers and an expert on concussions and head injuries.
“The human brain floats inside the skull,” he said. “So, when a person or a helmeted head suddenly hits another or the ground or some object, the brain can still shift.”
He says it’s that sudden jerking of the head that causes the brain to rattle around inside the skull.
“It's called brain skull decoupling. It's not one unit. It's separated and that can lead to major injury. It can lead to concussion,” said Dr. Bailes.
“I've had two in the past, and both were relatively mild. I was out for about a week from sports,” said Cooper Prawdzik, a Harvard University lacrosse player.
It’s an experience Prawdzik knows well. He played lacrosse, hockey, and football in high school, suffering two concussions along the way.
“I didn't ever have memory loss or any of that,” said Prawdzik. “It was just more of constant headaches for the next couple of days following.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 5-10% of athletes will experience a concussion in any given sports season.
For the last 12 years, Dr. Bailes has been working with a team of scientists to see if they could create internal protection for the brain.
“It's spring-loaded with a special steel spring," described Dr. Bailes.
What they came up with is a $200 band that fits around the neck called the ‘Q-Collar.’ Q30, the company that makes the band, says the device works by putting about 1.2 pounds of pressure onto the athlete’s jugular vein.
“The pressure is here so that when you place it on, it approximates near the jugular vein, which is superficial, thin-walled,” explained Dr. Bailes.
Dr. Bailes says the collar puts a kink in that hose. As drainage slows capillaries around the brain fill up with an extra tablespoon of blood, which creates a cushion for the brain like bubble wrap.
“This is enough, apparently, to just raise the amount of blood inside capacitance vessels of the brain. It makes it a tighter fit. It eliminates the ability of it to move or shift,” he said.
A study from the FDA looking at athletes found 77% of those who wore the Q-Collar during a season of play showed MRIs with no significant changes in white matter regions of the brain. Meanwhile, 73% of those who did not wear the collar exhibited significant changes in those same deep brain tissues.
Earlier this year, the FDA cleared the collar for use in athletes aged 13 and up.
“I think that even just taking the extra step and wearing that piece of equipment is very, very worth it and can help you out in the long run,” said Cooper.
It’s already being used in hockey, football and soccer. And if all continues to go well, athletes could find a Q-Collar as common as a mouth guard.