When Anthony Gonzales received a hard tackle while playing rugby in 2011, he didn't know if he had a concussion -- despite showing possible symptoms. His story is a common one among young athletes -- a dangerous prospect if you consider the potential consequences of an undetected head injury.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that each year, American emergency departments treat an estimated 173,285 sports- and recreation-related traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), including concussions, among athletes aged 19 and younger. Though symptoms can be subtle and difficult to detect, these head injuries can lead to lifelong cognitive problems that affect memory, behavior, and emotions. If repeated within a short period of time, head trauma can cause more serious brain problems or even death.
To help reduce the number of athletes who return to play too early and risk worsening an existing injury, Gonzales and fellow Arizona State University alum Bob Merriman developed the FITGuard, a mouthguard that indicates when a blow to the head is serious enough to warrant further attention.
The FITGuard has a green LED strip on the front that turns blue when it detects a medium force impact and red when there’s an above-50 percent chance the athlete has suffered a concussion. The athlete can then use an app to download a data log showing why the guard is displaying a given color. The data will also be uploaded to a central database to help the FIT team improve the device.
"[The FITGuard] will allow parents, coaches and leagues to follow their normal concussion protocol while having some quantitative data to support their conclusion," Gonzales said in the video above. "We want to provide them with the tools to make informed decisions about the safety of athletes and reduce the traumatic effects of brain injury."
The company has so far won several thousand dollars in grant funding, begun software development and produced several prototypes. If it works as planned, the FITGuard could be a big step forward in the proper treatment and diagnosis of head injuries, protecting athletes and helping relieve anxious parents and coaches.
While the issue of concussion prevention has received increased attention in recent years, including a $30 million donation by the NFL to the National Institutes of Health for medical research, sports-related brain injuries remain common, with the majority of cases involving young athletes. President Obama even hosted a summit on youth sports concussions this week at the White House to call attention to the issue.
The FITGuard is one of many recent strategies to limit the effects of head trauma, including new and improved helmets and stricter enforcement of concussion protocol, which generally consists of a medical examination for any changes in a player's behavior, thinking, or physical functioning.
Though they haven't brought their product to market yet, Gonzales has high hopes for his product: "Our device, made right here in the good old U.S.A., is the next step in sports evolution."
CORRECTION: A previous headline suggested the device could definitively determine whether its wearer had sustained a concussion. The mouthguard is designed to indicate if an athlete is at risk of concussion.