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NFL partners with UNC, other universities for head impact research

A sensor-lined mouth guard is part of an NFL pilot program to measure hits to the head players encounter on the field.
Courtesy of UNC Athletics

Almost a decade ago, concussion research from UNC-Chapel Hill — and now-Chancellor Dr. Kevin Guskiewicz — led the NFL, and later college football, to change kickoff rules to limit especially hard hits.

Now, researchers with the Matthew Gfeller Center at UNC are working with the NFL and four universities to analyze the impact of contact to players’ heads.

Sensors built into custom-fit mouth guards help measure impacts while players are on the field. The NFL says gathering data will help inform injury reduction efforts at the professional and collegiate levels.

So far, 10 NFL teams are using the sensors.

In addition to UNC-Chapel Hill, the universities of Alabama, Washington and Wisconsin also outfitted players with the high-tech mouth guards this season. They'll each get a complex breakdown of the data. The NFL says it plans to expand the program to more universities.

The sensors collect data on the speed, direction, force, location and severity of impact. The league says it will help inform rule changes and could lead to better equipment, like position-specific helmets.

Dr. Jason Mihalik, co-director of the Matthew Gfeller Center, says using sensors in mouth guards to detect contact to the head could be widely applied.

“We are also looking at the efficacy of a mouth guard-based product that would allow us to then expand our work of head impact forces, and look at different athletes,” Mihalik said. “Are there athletes that might be at risk for concussions, including our lacrosse athletes, and our field hockey and our soccer, and so on and so forth.”

Further research could help resolve debates, like whether it would be safer for women lacrosse players to wear helmets. It could also show if certain temperatures or fatigue affect a players' ability to ward off a concussion from a hard hit.

Mihalik said the research goes beyond what the Gfeller Center has done so far. By measuring the hits and impacts to players through multiple methods — like using mouth guard sensors, video and other performance data — researchers will be able to learn much more about the kinds of hits that are most severe.

“Not just from a how-hard-are-they-getting-hit standpoint," Mihalik said. "But what are the things they’re experiencing in participation that might lead to a scenario where they get very hard, versus a scenario where they don’t.”

Cole del Charco is WUNC’s morning reporter. He’s worked for WUNC since 2019.
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