There has been a ton of talk about concussions in the National Football League this season. At the forefront has been Tua Tagovailoa and the Miami Dolphins mishandling of his significant injury. Apart from that, there is a larger question to ask regarding the number of confirmed and suspected head injuries this year, considering the reduced number of concussions seen the in past two seasons. In response, the NFL and NFLPA have employed the use of “guardian caps” in training camps, allowed the use of new tech called the Q-Collar, and made changes to the league concussion protocol for this past week.
There were over 200 concussions reported in the NFL each year between 2015 and 2019, then in 2020 and 2021, those numbers dipped just below 200, to 172 and 187 respectively. Why? In large part, this was due to the player safety efforts of the NFL. A higher percentage of players wore NFL recommended helmets. Firmer rules regarding head-to-head contact were adopted and enforced.
These preventative measures are still in place. And yet, from injury data reported so far this year, the number of concussions stands to increase by season’s end, breaching 200 again. So, what are the league and its players doing about it?
The Guardian Cap
Guardian caps are a soft-shell, padded covering that goes on the outside of the regular NFL helmets. In effect, they operate as an airbag absorbing the majority of the collision force when a player makes a tackle or is tackled.
The goal is to reduce the impact on the player’s brain. These detachable helmet covers were mandated by the NFL for linemen, linebackers, and tight ends from the start of training camp through the second week of preseason, although many teams are requiring their use throughout the season. According to the league, the Guardian Cap reduces impact severity by 10 percent if one player in the collision is wearing it, and 20 percent if both players are. This tech seems to have been received well by most players and coaches, although change will always have some critics.
In February of last year, the FDA approved a new device to be worn around the neck of athletes to aid in the protection of the brain from repetitive sub-concussive head impacts. This device was the Q-Collar.
It is a lightweight device that wraps around the back and sides of the athlete’s neck, and its function is “applying light pressure to the sides of the neck [to] increase blood volume in the brain’s venous structures, reducing the harmful internal movement that causes brain injury.” Essentially, it fills the capillaries around the brain with extra blood, stabilizing it almost like bubble wrap, according to Dr. Julian Bailes, the former team physician for the Pittsburgh Steelers. What the Guardian Cap does externally, the Q-Collar does internally, although it’s not an invasive product. It reduces the unrestrained movement of the brain in the skull that occurs during blunt trauma incidents, commonly known as “slosh”. Q30, the producer, has already partnered with Los Angeles Chargers Linebacker Drue Tranquill to promote their product, as they hope to expand their presence in the NFL. Use of the Q-Collar is voluntary at the moment. Among the many studies and research conducted, found here, Q30 reported a promising high school study of 284 football players in 2018, showing 77 percent of athletes who wore the Q-Collar reported no significant changes to the brain, while 73 percent of the athletes who didn’t wear the collar did.
Changing the Concussion Protocol
Following the controversy over Tua Tagovailoa’s head injury last week, the NFL and NFLPA agreed to hurriedly evolve the league’s concussion protocol. The specific change to the guidelines was the addition of ‘ataxia’ to the existing list of no-go symptoms, which includes loss of consciousness, confusion, and amnesia. Ataxia is defined as abnormality of balance/stability, motor coordination or dysfunctional speech caused by a neurological issue. Fully updated protocols can be found here.
The league is hopeful that these preventative measures will be successful in their mission to reduce concussions and increase overall player safety. Only time will tell.