Concussions are one of the most serious and pressing issues in contemporary sports, with hockey being no exception. Concussions can have both short term effects, causing painful symptoms and leading to missed games for players, as well as longer term and sometimes much more tragic consequences. Treating and preventing concussions is one of the foremost challenges of today’s game, and I recently had the privilege of attending an event where a new collar like piece of equipment potentially revolutionizing the field of concussion prevention was unveiled.
The event was held by Performance Sports Group, a sport equipment company whose brands include Easton and Bauer. The presentation began with a short video about the symptoms and effects of concussions, including testimonial from Marc Staal about his experiences with concussions. Kevin Davis, the CEO of Performance Sports then gave a short speech on his company’s focus on innovation and safety not just at the professional level but also amateur and youth levels as well, before ceding the stage to Dr Julian Bailes, Chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery and Co-Director of the NorthShore University HealthSystem Neurological Institute. Dr. Bailes, who will be played by Alec Baldwin in the upcoming movie Concussion, then began to explain the science behind the new device.
Dr. Bailes began by introducing some basic concepts of fluid dynamics concerning the movement of objects through fluids to relate to the movement of the brain within the skull. Essentially, the “slosh theory” that Dr. Bailes came up with is that with a greater amount of fluid pressure in the skull, the brain would move around less within the skull and concussions would become less prevalent or severe. He explained that this goal, making head collisions as elastic as possible, then led him to consider the anatomies of certain animals as compared to humans in his quest for concussion prevention. Woodpeckers, long-horned sheep, and diving birds all withstand large quantities of g-forces but don’t seem to incur the resulting concussion symptoms that we see in humans. Woodpeckers in particular have a tongue that works to lightly constrict the veins around their brains to increase the pressure within the skull, allowing the birds to withstand shock against their heads. This is what led Dr. Bailes to postulate that by applying light pressure to the jugular vein in the neck and decreasing the flow of blood from the brain, the resultant increase in intracranial pressure would be enough to reduce the slosh effect and help prevent concussions.
Dr. Gregory Myer, the Director of Research in the Division of Sports Medicine at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, then took the stage to walk through some of the clinical trials that sought to verify Dr. Bailes’ theory. Dr. Myer echoed the words of both Mr. Davis and Dr. Bailes by emphasizing that what we know about sports helmets is that they are very good at preventing skull fractures but do little in the way to prevent concussions, before introducing some of the steps taken to examine Dr. Bailes’ approach. Dr. Myer first explained an epidemiological study that demonstrated a reduced incidence of concussions in athletes at high altitudes, where players incur a similar increase in intracranial pressure as the one the collar device causes. He then went on to show that in trials where some groups of athletes tried the collar and others did not, the rate of mild traumatic brain injuries were much lower. Although he emphasized that clinical trials are still ongoing, he noted that the research is promising that this kind of equipment, if brought to market, could be a major step forward in the prevention of concussions.
What followed was a short video of Dr. Charles Tator, a senior scientist at the Toronto Western Research Institute, who expressed enthusiasm about the prospects of the collar in the field of concussion prevention. There was then a short panel discussion featuring Dr. Neilank Jha, a neurosurgeon at Toronto Western Hospital, and Mark Messier. Dr. Jha, who first explained his personal passion for dealing with concussions, was enthusiastic that the collar device would be revolutionary in concussion prevention not only at the professional level but also the amateur and youth levels. Mark Messier explained some of the reasons he’s excited about this project and expressed his optimism with regards to the turn towards preventive medicine in sports. During a brief Q and A session Dr. Bailes and Dr. Myer addressed some safety concerns about the collar, noting that the amount of extra blood in the skull is about the volume of a grape and the constriction of the collar on the neck is comparable to a necktie. After the Q and A session I had the opportunity to talk to Mark Messier one on one, and our conversation can be found below.
PK: What inspired you to get involved working to combat concussions?
MM: Just the fact that I had concussions, I knew the effects they had on me. I was one of the lucky ones that never had any long-term residual effects but I had a lot of friends and players that did. I saw the effects of concussions in the minor league levels, which was very concerning to me, and realized that I had an opportunity to bring some attention to it and that’s when we started the Messier Project. The Messier Project then turned into a helmet that had some technology that helped reduce the risk of concussion, and then from there continued on with Bauer, to the point where one of their main missions is to drive technology not only for performance but also for protection. All things lined up and here we are today with an incredible opportunity to help athletes from all different sports.
PK: What kind of changes do you think hockey needs to help lead to better prevention or treatment of concussions? Do you think it’s a cultural thing or an equipment thing?
MM: I think we’re doing a great job from technology to rules of engagement to discipline. It’s a very complex solution because hockey innately is a very rugged sport that’s being played at high levels of energy in a confined area. So the trick for us is to find ways where we can make the game better and faster and more entertaining, but more importantly perhaps is more protection for the players, which is one of the main focuses of Performance Sport Group, and they are innovators in both performance and protection. So I think the NHL, the NHLPA in collaboration spend every hour of the waking day to figure out ways in order to make the game better and more safe for the players.
PK: Were there any moments in your own career, either experiences you had or things you saw other guys experience that made you think more carefully about the long-term effects of concussions?
MM: Well the unfortunate part is that when you’re playing the game you’re not necessarily thinking about injury, because you’re more concerned about your performance and I think that’s just the DNA of athletes. Racecar drivers don’t think about crashing when they start a race they think about being the fastest guy around the track and winning the race. They don’t go into the race thinking they’re going to crash – hockey players don’t go into a game thinking that they’re going to get injured. But what we can do is give them options and educate the players into technology that will help them be better players as well as help them be more protected, I think that in itself is the solution.
PK: What are your thoughts on the Rangers so far this season?
MM: They’re playing great hockey. They’re playing probably the best hockey in the league, they look like the strongest team in the league, and they look like they’re setting themselves up for another great run come springtime.