Sport’s search for better protection from concussions will take a step forward on Saturday when Ospreys and Cardiff Blues players become the first to compete while wearing mouthguards that send head impact data to the sidelines.
The instrumented mouthguards are made by Hemel Hempstead-based OPRO, the world’s leading provider of advanced gum shields, and they contain a tiny electronic chip that measures impacts and sends the data, in real time, to a receiving station that can be plugged into a team doctor’s laptop.
The ‘PROTECHT’ chips are designed by Swansea’s Sports and Wellbeing Analytics and assembled in South Wales, which means this significant advance in player welfare is entirely made in Britain.
Instrumented mouthguards have been used by athletes in contact and combat sports for several years but, until now, their data could only be downloaded after the bout, match or training session – OPRO’s new mouthguards are the first to give medical staff an instant picture.
Speaking to Press Association Sport, OPRO’s founder Dr Anthony Lovat explained that the chip only adds about a millimetre of thickness to the side of the mouthguard and players have experienced no problems with them.
The potential benefits for rugby union, and other contact sports, are obvious, with recent surveys suggesting the vast majority of players suffer a concussion at some point in their careers.
This is complicated by the issue of sub-concussive hits, impacts below the concussion threshold that still damage the brain, and the fact that many concussion cases go undiagnosed because only one in 20 players actually lose consciousness after the impact.
Dr Lovat stressed that the mouthguards will not solve these problems on their own, far from it, but they can be another tool in the medical team’s kit.
“We’re being very careful to say that interpretation of the data is still key and that will depend on experts on the sidelines,” he said.
“But we believe this technology will give them raw, physical data on potential head injuries, when they need it, and we think that could be a hugely valuable tool.”
The chips, which have linear and rotational accelerators to measure the impact and a transmitter to send the data via text message, have rechargeable batteries that last more than four hours – more than enough for the longest training session, too.
Dr Lovat, an entrepreneurial dentist, set up OPRO 21 years ago after seeing his daughter’s team-mate lose a tooth in a lacrosse match because she was wearing her uncomfortable gumshield in her sock, not her mouth.
Since then, the company has become a global leader in its field, supplying the England and New Zealand rugby union teams, 11 of 12 Premiership sides, UFC and Great Britain’s Olympic hockey and taekwondo teams.
“We have already had huge interest from a wide range of sports in the new mouthguards, so it’s possible that international rugby sides, boxers, mixed martial arts fighters, hockey players, you name it, will be wearing these clever devices soon,” he said.
“OPRO takes no credit for the chips, that is all down to SWA who came to us a couple of years ago with the idea, but we have worked on this together and everything about this is British, which I think is something worth celebrating.”
- Press Association