Universities turn to Wii Fit as way of examining concussions

Maryland football player Jacob Wheeler gives the Wii Fit a try as assistant trainer Kate Goeler records his score, which would be used as a frame of reference in the event Wheeler ever suffered a concussion.
Maryland football player Jacob Wheeler gives the Wii Fit a try as assistant trainer Kate Goeler records his score, which would be used as a frame of reference in the event Wheeler ever suffered a concussion. (Toni L. Sandys/the Washington Post)
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By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 19, 2010

Across the spectrum of athletics from youth soccer to the National Football League, concussions are one of the most worrisome of injuries: hard to diagnose and even harder to know when an athlete has recovered. Now, in an unusual combination of real sports and their digital imitators, a handful of colleges, including the University of Maryland, are turning to a video game for help.

Athletic trainers in College Park and on other campuses are using the Wii Fit video game as an objective and practical -- if unproven -- method of assessing athletes' balance, an important yardstick for determining recovery from concussion.

For the past year, Maryland and Ohio State have partnered to conduct research into the reliability of Wii Fit -- an exercise video game played on Nintendo's Wii console, which allows for physical interaction between player and game -- as an effective concussion management instrument. Darryl Conway, Maryland's head athletic trainer, said this will be the third year the school has used components of the game to conduct baseline testing of its athletes' balance.

Proponents of using Wii Fit as a tool to examine concussions praise its simplicity and affordability -- not to mention its popularity with student-athletes.

"The athletes love it because what we've done is we've incorporated this fun game that they're playing at home into their rehab system," said Tamerah Hunt, director of research at the Ohio State Sports Concussion Program. "But they're also enjoying it at a time when they're injured or at a time when their spirits are down, and they have to come into the athletic training room every day and they have to get all this treatment . . . and it's kind of a reaction of, 'Oh, this is fun.' "

Others, however, are cautious to accept it as a valid means of treating the injury.

"Obviously, the spotlight on this injury is iridescent right now, and there's a lot of people that are concerned about it," said Micky Collins, assistant director of the Sports Medicine Concussion Program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

"What I'm afraid of is that that's leading to sort of this potentially dangerous, really limited scope in terms of how you evaluate this and trying to come up with easy tools and sort of one-size-fits-all recommendations that can end up being very dangerous."

Increasing concern

The issue of concussions in athletics has emerged as a major health concern in recent years -- from professional sports organizations such as the NFL all the way down to high school and youth teams. Increasing efforts have been made to attempt to limit the number of head injuries.

Prior to the start of training camps last month, the NFL announced it would dispense posters to its 32 teams detailing the dangers of concussions in blunt terms. The posters must be displayed in each team's locker room all season. Additionally, the NFL recently tested 16 helmet models in an effort to improve the technology of its headgear to better prevent concussions; the results of the tests were distributed to league players.

NFL retirees have reported rates of Alzheimer's and other memory-related diseases at five times or more the national rate, according to a league-funded study. Boston University scientists, whose research was funded in part by the NFL, have discovered a link between head injuries suffered by athletes and a condition that mimics Lou Gehrig's disease, or ALS.

Also, the NFL and its players' union have worked to reduce the amount of hitting during team practices in an attempt to decrease the number of player-incurred concussions.

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