Could Leeds Rhinos’ mouthguards help reduce the risk of concussion?

Leeds Rhinos have long been regarded as one of rugby league’s most forward-thinking clubs and when they take to the field for their Super League opener against Wakefield on Saturday, their players will again be at the forefront of a new movement, this time in the sport’s battle to further understand the impacts of concussion.

Concussion has never been higher on the sporting agenda. League, like union, is subject to a potential legal challenge from former players who are showing symptoms of dementia. The problem was again brought into the spotlight in January when the former Leeds captain, Stevie Ward, retired at 27 because of persistent symptoms relating to in-game concussions.

But for the last year, the Rhinos have been working in conjunction with the University of Leeds to understand how and why concussions happen: and crucially, how the impact of them can be minimised. This weekend, their players will wear custom-fitted mouthguards with sensors that measure collisions and direct impacts to the head.

The goal? To give a greater understanding of when a player potentially becomes at risk of a concussion or head trauma by measuring the force in every collision they experience in a game. “The guards track impact to the head, as well as rotational force,” explains Prof Ben Jones, who works for the Rhinos and the England national team.

“We’ve tried things like sensors on helmets, or stickers on the back of the neck in the past. But those things move around whereas a well-fitted mouthguard doesn’t. It’s connected to the top of the jaw and, in turn, the skull. By studying the data the accelerometer sensors in the guards give us, it enables us to understand how the head is impacted by collision. It adds a whole new dimension of accuracy to how we track trauma to the head. It’s fantastic.”

Leeds have trialled the guards in training and will now wear them in games throughout 2021. A decision on whether to take a player from the field after a head knock rests on the opinion of the medical staff but it is hoped the new technology will provide concrete, factual data that makes it clearer when a player falls into risk of trauma to the head.

“GPS units were great when they arrived, because it enabled us to measure how many collisions a player went through in a given period of time,” Jones explains. “But they couldn’t tell you how big that collision was. It’s the magnitude of collision we’re interested in, and how that affects a player’s head.

“The purpose of technology should be to provide objective data to replace subjective observations. If a big collision happens in-game, someone will observe it and give their opinion. But if we can provide objective data, it makes things much clearer, and potentially safer.”

With further understanding of how dangerous collisions affect a player, there is not only the increased possibility of limiting exposure to them, but helping clubs prepare as efficiently as possible to minimise risk. “The research we’re doing surrounds trying to provide markers people can use to understand the status of an athlete,” Jones says.

“Research done by the University of Cape Town shows that safer tackles are ones with good technique, and if players are fatigued or caught off-guard, that’s where the risk increases. So these guards measure the impact of collisions over a period of time – as well as how many they’re involved in – and inform us about their risk factor.

“When you get mismatches in collision, particularly fresh players versus fatigued players, that’s where you get into a situation you really want to avoid. Clubs can now make informed decisions off the strength of what the guard tells us, and how often they’ve been involved in heavy collisions that we’d be wary of.”

The data, and validity of the guards, is still being scrutinised and monitored but a successful roll-out could be a major enhancement for rugby league’s continued battle to understand how concussion affects those who play the sport at the highest level.

“I think there’s more that can be done,” Jones says. “But there’s been continued progression for over 20 years in terms of research into concussion, and that’s improving all the time. Managing concussion in sport is everybody’s priority. Everyone understands the severity of it and the serious nature attached to it.

“It’s probably still a fraction too early to suggest this is totally there but the technology is giving us a new slant on how we understand things like concussion. The skull goes through so much trauma during a game like rugby league, and with more accurate data measuring live in play how heavy that trauma is, the results could be extraordinary.”