Studying Head Injuries in Young Football Players

With increasing fears of concussions in sports, the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences announced a new study—Kinematics of Impact Data Set (KIDS)—to track exposure of youth football players for head impacts.

As part of the KIDS study, the first of its kind to look at the full age spectrum of 6 to 18, six youth teams in Virginia and North Carolina were equipped with special helmets that have sensors inside to measure and transmit data for study. The KIDS study continues research Virginia Tech undertook in 2003 with its college football team to understand head impacts and their relation to concussion. Research in the field led to the first safety rating system ever available for adult football helmets.

It is anticipated that more than 50,000 head impacts will be recorded during the KIDS project, with the goal not just to improve youth football techniques and helmets. A secondary goal, to move toward improved head protection in other sports as well as advancements in automobile safety is already under way through the School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences.

Joel Stitzel, PhD, chair of Biomedical Engineering at the School of Medicine, said the research is crucial.

“One of the reasons we need to do this research is that we don’t have a diagnostic threshold. We don’t know beyond a certain threshold when a trainer needs to take a look at a player or whether a player is going to get a concussion when a certain type of impact is experienced.”

Youths Experiencing Similar Severity as Adults

The new study builds off an initial 2011 study of youth football players by Virginia Tech that indicated many high-level impacts occur during practice, and that 7- to 8-year-olds experience such impacts at near the severity associated with concussions in adults.

“That was pretty shocking news,” Stitzel said. “We don’t think younger players experience severe impacts as often as older players, but most people didn’t think kids could hit that hard. The biggest question we have is, ‘What are the long-term consequences of those impacts?’”

Testing for Head Injuries

Youths involved in the study get MRI tests of their brains before the season and afterward, and researchers videotape each practice and game to review the circumstances of particular impacts.

“One of the things I’m most excited about is the imaging,” Stitzel said. “We hope that this study will lead eventually to having a diagnostic type of MRI scan that could definitively identify brain changes serious enough to advise a player to sit out. The key to reducing or preventing head injuries in the future is a better understanding of the biomechanics of the head impacts the players are experiencing.”

The work of the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University team continues to deliver new information and techniques.

In 2013, scientists discovered a new way to measure the cumulative effect of impacts to the head incurred by football players. The metric, called Risk Weighted Cumulative Exposure (RWE), can capture players’ exposure to the risk of concussion over the course of a football season by measuring the frequency and magnitude of all impacts.

The information from a study of high school football practices and games in one season may translate to understanding the biomechanical basis of head injuries related to football, with a long-term goal of improving helmet safety and making football a safer sport.


Meanwhile, the results of a study of 50 youth-league players released in July 2013 found that contact in practice, not games, was the most significant variable when the number and force of head hits incurred over the course of a season were measured.

The study showed that limiting contact in practices of youth football teams did not result in an adverse effect in games.

“It is striking that you can cut head impacts for a player in half just by modifying practice, and it does not seem to change the game,’’ said Alexander Powers, MD, assistant professor of neurosurgery at Wake Forest Baptist and co-author of the study. “This may be very important in kids, where brains are developing.’’