Clear eyes on the field
UC researchers team with sports medicine to improve athletes' peripheral vision training to avoid hits, prevent concussion strikes
As the movie “Concussion” revives the discussion around lasting effects of head injury in the NFL, a team of University of Cincinnati researchers and sports medicine professionals are working with UC athletes to strengthen their peripheral vision to avoid the hits that could lead to concussion and brain injury.
The film starring Will Smith centers on the work of forensic pathologist and professor, Bennet Omalu, MD, who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in 2002, when conducting an autopsy on the brain of former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster. During his NFL career, Webster probably took many concussion-causing hits on the field as part of his job, which may have led to his struggles with dementia and depression off the field. Omalu’s discovery of the pathology in Webster’s brain would change the worldview on sports-related brain injuries.
In 2010, the University of Cincinnati, wanting to address the prevention and management of concussions in its own athletes, called on medical researchers at UC to develop a Concussion Prevention Program. What resulted is a training program that helps athletes improve their peripheral vision and neurovisual performance to protect themselves from potentially violent collisions.
“Six years ago, UC athletics asked me to help with their concussion diagnosis and management,” says Joe Clark, PhD, a professor in the Department of Neurology and a member of the UC Neuroscience Institute. “I wanted to use an FDA-approved medical device to help assess and gauge concussions as well as to establish a baseline, which is why we began using the Dynavision D2—a light board to help track reaction times and peripheral vision in athletes.”
Clark says with a background in sports medicine and his specialty training in neuroscience, he was able to use the tool to improve depth perception for players and improve their visual sensory performance, leading to an 80 percent drop in concussion rates at UC.
UC athletics has seen an 80 percent drop in concussions since beginning vision training six years ago.
In 2015, he published more data on these findings in the journal Optometry & Visual Performance, and the research is attracting the attention of athletic programs, both at the college and the professional level, that want to lower their concussion rates as well.
The Dynavision D2 training is designed to improve vision processing, speed of processing, eye hand coordination, visual fields, ocular motor performance and overall awareness. Drills are done as part of regular weight and conditioning training with the players going through circuits of exercises.
During the training, the complexity and demands of the training are increased to be fun, but challenging. Many of the vision training methods produce quantitative scores; the scores were recorded and high scores were posted and challenged. (Making the performance a competition among players improves participation and performance, Clark says.)
"Football is a complex skilled sport with the need to integrate sensory input to be successful, and our opinion is that vision plays a key component,” says Clark. "But little to no emphasis was placed on prevention or training to reduce the risk of traumatic brain injury (TBI), which includes concussions. We hypothesized that vision training would significantly reduce both practice and competition concussion incidence in football.”
Youth sports can benefit from adopting similar techniques
While most people think about concussions in sports being attributed to football, these standards and training can also be applied for all levels of sports and all genders.
“Concussions happen at the peewee, middle school and high school level, too,” he says. “Women and girls who play soccer also experience high rates of concussion. There needs to be more education for the athletes themselves about safety and awareness, and that while protective gear is important, it can’t protect everything.”
His experience and research have revealed that helmets and other concussion mitigation strategies haven’t been as effective. He sees this preventive training strategy as something that is easily adoptable by coaches and practitioners and can have a big impact on all team sports. In fact, because of the success UC has had with the Dynavision training, Clark has been contacted by other universities, professional teams, and even the makers of the Dynavision board, to see how they can offer training programs.
Clark also helps with the Crosstown Concussion Crew, made up of students from UC and Xavier University, who visit schools across Greater Cincinnati to educate students about concussions. (The Crosstown Concussion Crew was developed by the TriHealth ThinkFirst Injury Prevention Program and is funded by the Mayfield Clinic.)
Clark cautions that parents should not shy away from organized sports for fear of concussions, because the long terms benefits of exercise and organized sports far outweigh the risks.
“I definitely don’t want to see sports vanish because of injury, but it’s important to continue research on brain injuries and other related conditions, and it’s important to keep our athletes and our coaches educated. We’re much better off than where we were 8 to 10 years ago.”
January 29, 2016