Medical Advancements are coming to the NFL

Corbis Images
Corbis Images

By: Isaac Moore 1-31-2014

NEW YORK CITY – With Rob Gronkowski back in the lineup, things were going great for the Patriots. The team had won four of its last five games and had become one of the league’s best red zone offenses. That all changed midway through the third quarter in the Patriots week fourteen matchup against the Cleveland Browns.

Browns safety, TJ Ward came flying across the field to tackle Gronkowski as he hauled in a 15-yard catch down the seams. In order to avoid a hit to the head, Ward tackled low around the star tight end’s knees. It was all over from there. Gronkowski tore his ACL and his season was over.

The tackle itself was clean, but nevertheless the hit drew attention to the NFL’s rules on player safety. It was said that Ward’s reason for diving low was to avoid a hit to Gronkowski’s head – a play that would have likely drawn a penalty due to the league’s player safety rules.

Across the country, people debated whether it was safer for players to tackle high or to tackle low. A concussion may be more damaging to a player’s future health, but injuries to the knee could put a player’s career in jeopardy.

According to the NFL, there shouldn’t be a debate because there’s no evidence that shows an increase in knee injuries.

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Jeff Miller, Senior Vice President of NFL Health and Safety

“The data shows no spike in ACL injuries, in fact I think it’s fair to say that these injury levels are in line with the three year average,” says Jeff Miller, Senior Vice President of NFL Health and Safety.

Data collected by the Quintiles Group shows that ACL and MCL injuries actually decrease from 45 to 37 between 2012 and 2013. On the other hand, concussions have dropped 13% between 2012 and 2013.

The NFL believes that it has already made progress in player safety and they’re looking to continue to find new ways to help the players. The Chairman of the department of Neurological Surgery at the University of California, Dr. Mitchell Berger, says the NFL is exploring the idea of using a combination of imaging and biomarkers to diagnose concussions.

“There are some imaging paradigms that are coming along that can actually tell us whether or not different areas of the brain are communicating,” says Berger.

Berger says that they cannot diagnose a concussion through imaging alone. In order to make an accurate diagnosis, he suggested the use of biomarkers in protein.

“What this means is that we will be able to potentially obtain a finger prick of blood on the sidelines and perform a test to detect a protein in the blood that could be synonymous with a mild brain injury,” explains Berger.

Doctors would then link biomarkers found in the blood with the imaging data to see if there is a connection. If doctors can improve the diagnosis process, they will also learn how to better treat the players.

This is not the only technological advancement on the horizon. This past year, NFL training staffs began using an “eye in the sky” as well as sideline video monitors and electronic medical records data. In 2013, teams put an athletic trainer in the press box to serve as an “eye in the sky” and oversee the whole field.

Dr. Matthew Matava
Dr. Matthew Matava, President of the NFL Physician Society

“The reason is because the trainers and physicians on the sideline often cannot see everything that goes on, perhaps behind the play or during the play,” explains Dr. Matthew Matava, President of the NFL Physician Society. “The eye in the sky person will call down to the head physician or the athletic trainer and say ‘Check out your quarterback, we think he might be hurt.'”

In addition to the eye in the sky, physicians can also use a video monitor on the sideline to replay an injury in slow motion. Matava said that this technology was originally put in place to help evaluate concussions, but physicians have found it very useful when differentiating between injuries such as high ankle sprains and low ankle sprains. Teams will also have electronic medical records on the sidelines starting next season.

“We have the players medical history all the way back through high school to see what history he has, what medication he’s on, what allergies he has, and any other medical care that may influence the treatment during the game,” says Matava.

The NFL will never be able to eliminate injuries completely, the league is trying to improve the safety of its’ players the best that it can. Football is a violent sport and injuries are inevitable, but if doctors can learn how to better diagnose and treat the players, the sport will become even more desirable to future athletes.