If you’re even a little tuned in to sports these last few years, you already know that concussions are a hot-button topic. Hockey stars like Sidney Crosby and Patrice Bergeron have missed months of their careers because of head injuries, while entire leagues like the NFL are preparing for the legal ramifications of ignoring head injuries for decades. We still have much to learn about head injuries and the long-term impacts of them, but one thing is very clear: the days of “shaking it off” are long gone, and a new approach to concussion management has emerged.
With this newly-developed sensitivity has come a wave of new technology. At least a dozen manufacturers have developed ways to measure head impacts for athletes, from chin straps that change colors to headbands with sensors in them. One company, however, seems to have broken through the first wave and established themselves as a leader in the budding impact assessment industry.
Impakt Protective is the brainchild of British bomb disposal officer-turned-entrepreneur Danny Crossman, who also designed and developed the bomb suits featured in The Hurt Locker. Crossman teamed up with Scott Clark, a hockey coach, father of three, and software engineer to create a sensor that was small, inexpensive, and helped identify and measure hits to the head in athletes. The Shockbox was released in October 2011.
Impakt has developed the shockbox for use in hockey, football, lacrosse, and snow sports, each with its own design tweaks. The sensor is about five inches long and one inch wide, and is made of a durable rubber/plastic combination. It has on its exterior one multi-colored LED light, as well as a micro USB port for charging. The sensor attaches to the helmet using a strip of adhesive tape or velcro (depending on when the unit was purchased and for what sport) and weighs just 0.6oz (18g). The units retail for around $150. But perhaps the most distinguishing feature of the Shockbox is its ability to sync with a smartphone by way of Bluetooth and transmit data the moment a sizable hit is recorded.
I first learned of the Shockbox by way of one of our contributors, Kevin Stow. Kevin, a hockey player and father of two hockey-playing boys, was concerned about possible head injuries his sons might experience. Like many parents, he started to research, and he found that he kept coming back to the Shockbox. After trying them out with his boys, he was so impressed he became a distributor for the company.
I took delivery of a Shockbox unit for my 6-year-old son about halfway through last season. While the football sensor attaches inside the helmet, the hockey sensor is designed to fasten to the exterior of the helmet (entirely due to the way hockey and football helmets are designed – there is simply no room for the sensor on the inside of the hockey helmet). My son wears one of the new Bauer Re-Akt helmets, and the black sensor matched the black helmet perfectly. Impakt is currently testing different colors to ensure they don’t affect device performance.
The Shockbox app is a free download for both Apple and Android phones, and while the documentation for linking the sensor to the helmet did not match my process 100%, I had the two connected within a matter of minutes. An important note: you’ll need to charge the Shockbox using the USB cable for several hours before linking. Impatient people like me might have trouble linking with a non-charged sensor, so it’s best to plug it in for a few hours before trying.
The app has a number of features, and is intelligently designed to connect to up to 100 sensors. I could easily foresee a time in the not-too-distant future where a team mom with an ipad would be responsible for tracking a team full of players, and so it’s nice to know that the current iteration of the app supports this. The range of the Bluetooth is 100 yards, good enough for a hockey rink and all but the largest football stadiums. Within the app, there are sections for adding new sensors and players, as well as a place to view prior impacts. And that’s the real meat-and-potatoes of this system – how it jumps into action when an impact is registered with the sensor.
As I imagine all Shockbox owners do, I tested the device at home, smacking the helmet onto my desk. Within seconds I had the alert on my phone, which showed the player’s name, the date and time of the impact, the direction, as well as an estimate of the g-forces sustained. Hits come in all sizes and varieties, but the Shockbox does a great job reducing the noise and only registering a hit when it exceeds 50g’s, the threshold for a concussion-level hit. On the phone, the app uses a visual scale that goes from green to yellow to orange to red, indicating the severity of the hit. My “test hit” registered orange, and the LED on the sensor blinked the same color.
The app then prompted me to begin an assessment, which I was beyond impressed with. I’m a hockey dad, but I’m no EMT, so I was happy to see that the app walked me through a typical assessment. First it has you ask the player simple questions – what’s the score? what rink are we at? what’s your coaches name? It also asks for any symptoms – dizziness, lack of memory of the hit, nausea, vomiting, etc. From there it moves on to a physical assessment, even showing a short video of the balance test that the player must perform next. When you have gone completely through the test, it provides you with an initial judgment. If there are no symptoms, no balance issues, and the player answers all the questions correctly, they are cleared. If not, they are prompted to seek medical care. The information you enter in the app and the data on the hit can be forwarded by email or text (to a doctor, perhaps), and you are able to go back into the app and edit the hit information with a doctor’s diagnosis after you receive one. Whereas the sensor and app dashboard seem simple, the impact assessment is very well thought-out and thorough, helping medical professionals, concerned coaches, and parents walk through the incredibly important post-hit checklist.
Fortunately, my son has not sustained a registered impact while wearing his sensor. That said, he did fall in spectacular fashion at the start of travel-team tryouts last spring. After skating the full length on brand new ice, he caught and edge and slid in a heap into the endboards. The other parents standing near me, most of whom know about the Shockbox, turned around and watched as I took out my phone and waited for the impact. On the ice, my son got up and got back in line, no worse for wear. 80 feet away, in the top row of the stands, I held my phone and breathed a sigh of relief after 30 seconds passed without a Shockbox notification. He was fine. And because of the Shockbox, I knew for sure.
It remains to be seen how the sports equipment industry reacts to the bevy of choices out there. In my research, the Shockbox appears to be well on its way to widespread adoption based on the head start they have and the thorough methodology behind the device design and smartphone app. I’ve had conversations with dozens of people in the hockey community, including high-ranking members of major hockey manufacturers, and they all appear to agree – it won’t be long before sensors like this are mandated or at least suggested by all helmet manufacturers, and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if future iterations of helmets are made with the sensor’s location in mind.
For now, I’m happy knowing that my son’s fragile young brain is being monitored while he plays both football and hockey, as we got another one for his football helmet. Being a sports dad is tough for a number of reasons, and it’s easy to read the statistics and the stories and decide instead to plop your kid in a protective bubble, far away from contact sports. But sports, even of the contact variety, are so important, teaching kids all about sacrifice and hard work and time management and teamwork that I’d much rather take each and every precaution with my kids that I can, yet still allow them to play these sports. The Shockbox is just another one of these precautions.
As for our friend Kevin Stow, he’s now the leading distributor of Shockbox sensors in Illinois, helping families in the midwest attain peace of mind and ensuring nobody goes back into the game after a big hit.
“I want to keep my kids as safe as I can in the game they and I love,” says Stow. “Studies show that second impacts, caused by going back into play too soon after a first traumatic hit, causes severe damage. The Shockbox at least throws a stop measure into the situation by at least getting an assessment for the child before you allow him or her back into play.”
For now, Stow is distributing the sensors to parents who want to monitor their kids, much in the way I monitor mine. But it’s easy to see this technology mushroom up to the organizational or league level, where each team is tasked with monitoring their players. A lot has changed in the last ten years and it’s certain a lot will change in the next decade. Because the only thing that will prevent concussions is by eliminating the sports, which will never happen. But as a hockey player and hockey dad, I’m happy that my son will at least grow up in an era that takes concussions seriously and has wonderful technology like the Shockbox to help us assess them.
To speak to Kevin about the Shockbox or to purchase a unit, check out his website at http://safeheads.iconosites.com or Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/SafeHeads?hc_location=stream.