Rising up for a header in football, an awkward landing following a rugby tackle, or being body checked during an ice hockey game: these are just some of the sports that have their fair share of physical contact, at both professional and amateur levels.
Head injuries in particular often take centre stage should a player go down during a game, and with good reason. Although most individuals are able to walk it off, occasionally a few require further treatment, typically from professionals at a nearby medical centre.
As a result, a Swedish team made up of specialists from the University of Gothenburg, Luleå University of Technology, and the Department of Surgery and the Clinical Chemistry Laboratory at Sahlgrenska University Hospital, liaising with the Institute of Neurology at University College London, looked to devise a novel and innovative way for detecting and diagnosing the extent of head-related injuries in sports players.
They published their findings in the peer-reviewed journal JAMA Neurology.
The objective of this research was to find out whether the body produces specific biomarkers—compounds or structures that define a specific pathological or physiological characteristic—following a sports-related concussion.
Furthermore, the team looked to see if they would be able to predict an athlete’s return to the field of play by analysing the blood plasma levels of said biomarkers.
The participants for this research came from twelve teams in the Swedish Hockey League, totalling 288 professionals, all of whom took blood tests prior to the start of the season in order to establish a baseline.
35 of the hockey players ended up with concussions, with a trio of players actually out cold following the collision. 28 of them underwent several blood tests at scheduled intervals (one, 12, 36 and 144 hours) following the injury, concluding on their return to the game.
By comparing the blood tests to the baseline recorded during preseason, the research team was able to show that levels of tau, a nerve cell protein, spikes in the blood following a collision, and could be used as a viable biomarker.
Tau, or τ proteins, are used in the body to stabilise microtubules, which make up the structural integrity of cells. In effect, the protein could be thought as scaffolding inside a cell. This compound is particularly common in the neurones of the central nervous system, the system which includes the brain and the spinal cord.
Thus, the scientists were able to use the τ protein levels in the blood to diagnose the acuteness of the concussion within the hour of sustaining the head impactful situations, as well as how long the player would require to rest depending on how high said levels were.
This test was particularly important for the hockey players, where according to co-author and leading brain researcher Professor Henrik Zetterberg, repeated blows to the head are common enough, meaning the adequate healing time is something left to be desired.
Zetterburg was speaking during a press release of his findings on the Swedish website Expertsvar, explaining that this type of condition was common in other contact sports too, with an adequate monitoring system to track the healing progress of the players yet to be discovered, that is until the research team began screening for τ proteins.
According to Professor Yelverton Tegner during the press release, who also worked on the paper and as the Swedish Women’s football team physio, the aim is to use this biomarker as part of a medical kit that can be used for diagnostics purposes, whether in hospitals or on the sidelines of a big game.
What other diagnostic tools could be, or should be, used during sporting events that incorporate elements of physical contact?