A device inspired by woodpeckers and bighorn sheep has shown to help protect non-helmeted female athletes from traumatic brain injuries sustained over the course of a soccer season.
The Q-Collar is a device worn around the neck that presses lightly against the jugular vein, slowing blood outflow from the skull. That increased blood volume serves to stop the brain from sloshing during an impact. While the device’s effect has been studied before, particularly among helmeted sports such as men’s ice hockey and football, a newly-released study is the first to look at girls in non-helmeted sports. (Female athletes are, in general, more susceptible to brain injury.)
The Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and Q30 Innovations, the company behind the Q-Collar, studied its effects on a team of female high school soccer players during a competitive season. The results of the study, which have been published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, revealed “no significant changes” in the brain’s white-matter from pre- to post-season of those athletes wearing the device, while those on the team who didn’t wear the collar displayed “significant white-matter changes” despite a similar number of head impacts.
“We were looking at female athletes because that is certainly an underserved population in terms of receiving research,” said Dr. Greg Myer, director of sports medicine research at Cincinnati Children’s and lead author of the study. “Female athletes tend to be more susceptible to a head impact. Our football studies showed that male athletes can have an average of 800 head impacts over 20G, while girls are closer to 150 impacts over 20G. It’s a substantial difference.”
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Over a six-month period, the researchers studied every head impact sustained during practice and games to get an understanding of how repetitive sub-concussive hits can change the white matter structure of the brain over the course of a season. The hits, which were tracked using accelerometers placed behind the left ear during practice and games, ranged from heading a ball to colliding with another player, or a hard fall. The study looked at 46 female high school players, 24 of who wore the Q-Collar. All the athletes underwent neuroimaging up to three times over the study, which spanned the course of a competitive season and a three-month wind-down period where they were at reduced risk of head impact.
The researcher’s overall conclusion matched that from Q30’s previous studies: Helmets alone aren’t the solution.
“In sports, there’s a heavy focus on single big blows to the head that might lead to what is subjectively described as a concussion,” said Myer. “What we really wanted to look at now is the cumulative effect of head impact exposure over an entire season. Evidence indicates that cumulative load of head impacts is potentially more concerning than that one single blow.”
The imaging conducted during the three-month postseason showed that white matter changes in the non-collar group either partially resolved or fully returned to normal. But the concern is that sustaining injuries such as these over time could weaken the brain and lead to more serious consequences.
A high school soccer player wears the Q-Collar and an accelerometer sensor. (Courtesy of Q30)
Myer views the study as sparking a “paradigm shift” in how people look at concussion prevention.
“Long-term blows are just as important as creating the perfect helmet,” he said. “To us, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to just look at concussions because that’s one hit of the 200 to 500 you could take during a season. We focused our studies on the cumulative load that the brain is exposed to. We want to reduce the burden of the brain in a sport where you could have head impacts.”
Q30 is working with the FDA to get the collar approved as a medical device and is using its nearly three-dozen medical studies conducted over the past six years as evidence to support its case. Last year, Q-Collar was approved as a medical device for commercial sale in Canada.
Tom Hoey, co-CEO of Q30, said the hope is that the Q-Collar sets a precedent for innovations claiming to protect the brain from concussions.
“Working with the FDA is absolutely critical, and we’re happy to be working with them,” said Hoey. “As a medical device, our marketing claims will have to be approved by the FDA before we can market the Q-Collar in the U.S. We believe that it would be a good thing if other products that claim to reduce traumatic brain injury had to go through the same rigor of the FDA process.”
Dr. David Smith, a co-author of the recent study, came up with the idea for the Q-Collar after researching head-ramming bighorn sheep and woodpeckers and analyzing how both animals routinely tolerate high-speed cranium collisions with no adverse impact.