A recent article in The Guardian revealed Rugby Union have developed new and innovative technology to assist in identifying brain injuries in the field of play.

What is it and why are we talking about it?

The technology consists of a smart mouthguard that measures the G-force of an impact to a player’s head in real time, feeding the information back via Bluetooth to an independent doctor. The player will automatically be withdrawn from the field if the force is above 70g and 4,000 radians per second squared for men, and 55g and 4,000 radians per second squared for women. If such an impact does occur, the player will undergo an immediate head impact assessment and be withdrawn from play. There will then be a follow up after the match and then again two days later.

The technology comes after decades of concern in injury and sub-concussive impact in male and female professional rugby players. Research conducted by Rugby Union (2020) found that 20% of professional players sustained at least one match concussion in the 2018 – 2019 season, and a report by Professional Rugby Injury Surveillance Project (PRISP) found concussion was the most reported match injury, accounting for 28% of all in-match injuries in 2020 – 2021. 

Indeed, the action against World Rugby for significant loss as a result of brain injuries sustained in play, began with just eight players in December 2020 and is now set to increase to nearly 300. Given the alleged causal links to Alzheimer’s disease from heading a football, it would be no surprise to see this technology be picked up by regulators for other contact sports as well.

But what does this mean for insurers?

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is thought to be a neurodegenerative disease linked to rapid decelerations. This technology seeks to address the effect of frequent high impact collisions and identify at an early stage who may be at risk of a brain injury, even when symptoms may not be immediately obvious. The tech will add a further layer of insight into concussion and sub-concussive impacts, to assist in managing head injury and neurodegenerative disease risk, above relying solely on current concussion spotters and neurological medic assessment tools which have at times been subject to criticism. 

We know the changes of CTE can only be detected by analysing brain tissue ‘under the microscope’ (histological analysis) post-mortem. Whilst this technology does not seek to enable early diagnosis of CTE cases, it does add objective rigour to pitch-side concussion assessment, allowing prompt monitoring of accumulated sub-concussive impacts. This should significantly reduce the still unquantified potential for CTE to occur.

The data from the mouthguard in recording the level of ‘g-force’ of an impact, could provide a more accurate insight into mechanism of any injury and result in insurers and their legal teams being better able to assess the liability risk. 

As the technology is still in its infancy, it is too early to determine what the true effects of it will be. Having said that however, it does look to be a useful marker in identifying potential brain injuries at the earliest stage. There can be no doubt this will lead to increased education in the identification of injury and perhaps even prevention of a more serious brain injury and CTE. Naturally, a reduction in brain injuries should, in time, equate to a reduction in claims. This is only the beginning and it will be interesting to see how this field develops in the months and years to come.