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Wearable technology can make sports safer

By Barry He | China Daily Global | Updated: 2019-11-07 09:12
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With the riveting ups and downs of the Rugby World Cup in the past few weeks, it is the right time to reflect upon the sheer athleticism and bravery of the men competing in what can be, at times, an extremely physical endeavor.

Since 2006, the sporting world has been acutely aware of an often underreported and deadly consequence of contact sports. The issue of concussions broke through the international media 13 years ago, when autopsies of former National Football League players in the United States led to the discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

This is a brutally damaging brain condition that also affects sportsmen and women in fields such as rugby, boxing and mixed martial arts. The condition produces symptoms similar to Alzheimer's disease, and is irreversible once the damage is done. CTE is caused by repeated trauma to the head, though each individual impact might not be enough to provide a noticeable concussion. However, returning to play too quickly after a blow to the head can exacerbate the condition.

Due to the creeping nature of the condition over the course of several years, it has been difficult to objectively measure the severity of an incident of trauma to the head. During the Rugby World Cup in Japan, doctors have been using video replays to decide whether a player should be pulled off the field or not. This method, as a subjective process, leaves much to be desired.

However, technology, might provide a precise way to monitor the dangers affecting athletes. Organizations such as Prevent Biometrics and OPRO have developed gum shields, also known as mouthguards, which are placed in the mouth to protect the teeth, gums and tongue and have built-in sensors close to the skull. As the mouthguard protects the teeth, it also moves in unison with the skull, meaning that the gum shield provides an accurate portrayal of the types of forces going through a person's head.

"We've taken the guesswork out of identifying athletes for concussion assessment," said Steve Washburn, chief executive officer of Prevent Biometrics.

Gum shields, such as those produced by OPRO, also have movement sensors that can track linear and rotational forces that are transmitted via radio waves in real time to cornermen or coaches. This allows for safe and effective monitoring in live situations.

As technology progresses, it will be interesting to see whether wearable sensor technology can soon monitor other variables responsible for peak performance, such as body temperature, heart rate and stress levels.

Sports regulation bodies around the world would do well to ensure that this kind of technology is accessible and encouraged for players at all levels.

The author is a London-based columnist. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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