Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Possible Helmet Improvements?

With the summer approaching quickly, there are all sorts of activities that people will partake in that could possible involve a helmet - biking, baseball, football, and more. Being that this is a hockey blog, you know that I'm always interested in reading and learning more about the concussion and head trauma issues facing athletes with regards to their quality of lives, so I started down a rabbit hole today with the receipt of an email from a company called MIPS Protection. According to the email, MIPS Protection had acquired a company called Fluid Inside and all their related patent rights which include the pod seen in the lede photo!

I had never heard of MIPS Protection, but they seem to be a big player in bike helmet science and improvement, and their email today introduced me to another great Canadian-made product in Fluid Inside, a collaboration between Oblique Technology L.P. and the University of Ottawa in Canada. According to Fluid Inside's website, "Fluid Inside is engineered to enhance your helmet's ability to protect your brain by mimicking Cerebral Spinal Fluid (CSF) – your body's natural protection". I'll admit that got me interesting in taking a deeper dive into Fluid Inside, so let's see what's under the hood.

We'll start in Ottawa, Ontario where the Neurotrauma Impact Science Lab sits on the campus of the University of Ottawa. Founded in 2005, "[t]he NISL lab at the University of Ottawa is a world-leading research facility for the study of sport-related head injury," and has partnered in research with other renowned institutions such as Harvard University, University College Dublin, Imperial College in London, England, and St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto. From the looks of it, the NISL lab has made some serious friends who have a major impact on medical studies and research, so the science presented by Fluid Inside is likely sound. According to the number of peer-reviewed publications that the NISL or its work has appeared in would validate this science.

With the scientific method being sound in the research done by the NISL lab, the "methodology allows NISL to define a series of sport-specific injury mechanisms, each of which has a different profile of impact variables, which in turn enables the analysis of the resulting stress and strain on brain tissue. This understanding of how head injuries occur has been applied in the development of the Fluid Inside™ technology." While that sounds a little jargon-y and marketing-speak-like, what the NISL lab does is perform "extensive physical 'crash-test' simulations of known injury scenarios," followed by "feeding the captured data into a Finite Element Analysis" which crunches the data down and shows how and where the impact conditions cause injury to the brain.

If video is more your thing, here's what they do at the lab.

As their parent company does, Fluid Inside focused on bike helmets for riders of all kinds, so this acquisition by MIPS Protection makes a little more sense now. So how does this come back to hockey if these two companies are the leaders in bike helmet technology that reduces the number of concussions and the amount of brain trauma suffered by bikers?

In the numerous research studies that they have linked on their website, the research done by the NISL lab and by Fluid Inside has been cited or used in two dozen studies! Among those studies that should be noted are the 2016 Annals of Biomedical Engineering study that looked at the "[p]rotective capacity of ice hockey helmets against different impact events," the 2014 Proceedings of the Ircobi Conference study that examined the "analysis of the protective capacity of ice hockey helmets in a concussion injury reconstruction," and the 2015 Sports Biomechanics study that looked at "defining the effective impact mass of elbow and shoulder strikes in ice hockey." These three studies alone would give a ton of evidence to prove that today's current hockey helmets don't quite make the cut when it comes to protecting against concussion-related and brain trauma-related incidents in hockey.

So what's being done, you ask, as you already know that concussion numbers are climbing and CTE-related deaths are on the rise? We go back to the lede photo of Fluid Inside's Fluid Pods that adhere inside the helmet at specific spots to protect the head during movement or traumatic events. Like the cerebral spinal fluid that surrounds the brain in the skull, these pods, filled with a low-viscous, organic oil-based liquid, are designed to mimic the CSF as stated above. Instead of adding more foam or other products to stabilize the head from trauma, the Fluid Pods absorb the energy of a hockey hit and minimize the amount of trauma suffered by the brain by
dispersing this impact energy throughout the fluid system matrix.

Dr. Hoshizaki's research at the NISL indicates that hockey hits aren't as severe as a skier's fall or a biker flipping over the handlebars of his bike and the rotational energy of the hits seen in hockey is slower, but the brain is actually moving and spinning for a longer period of time due to the frequency of the hits throughout a game. Having the extra fluid inside the helmet via the Fluid Pods would mean the helmets have a little more give on the inside of the helmet during hits, allowing that fluid to absorb the trauma and protect the head a little more than just normal foam. While it won't solve the concussion problem altogether, could these Fluid Pods be a way to reduce the number of concussions and brain trauma?

"It's one small piece of it," Dr. Hoshizaki told the CBC in 2011. "Managing the behaviour and play on the ice is another important part, and education so players understand how important and serious a concussion is."

That's an important point to emphasize, and I'm glad that Dr. Hoshizaki isn't suggesting that this is a be-all, end-all solution. In combination with the findings of Ken Dryden and his push to outlaw all hits to the head, this Fluid Pod helmet system could go a long way in cutting the number of concussions that are currently seen. Without a change in behaviour and play on the ice, though, no helmet on the planet - real or imagined - will save the brains of players who entertain us nightly.

At the end of the day, it still comes down to the NHL finding an effective way to cut the number of concussions and hits to the head. When the guy in charge is saying stuff like this...
... the chance of seeing just how effective this helmet could be in reducing impact head trauma from normal hits will never be fully known. And that's a shame because Gary Bettman's continued belief that violent hits to the head is entertainment is now taking money out of the pocket of a company doing real, effective work in trying to reduce concussions.

At the end of the day, I'm highly optimistic for MIPS Protection and Fluid Inside in their work to reduce concussions in a number of sports. It just seems like NHL hockey won't be one of them.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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