Sports Medicine Leader in NFL Medical Innovation
In recent years, the National Football League (NFL) has invested millions of dollars into improving player safety. The effort is in response to research that uncovered the debilitating long-term effects repeated injuries could have on a player’s health.
As part of this initiative, a team led by Matthew Matava, MD, a Washington University orthopedic surgeon and chief of sports medicine at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, has worked closely with the NFL to develop several medical innovations now utilized by all 32 NFL teams.
Dr. Matava presented some of these improvements to Capitol Hill staffers at a briefing in June. One of those improvements is a computer tablet that gives NFL doctors sideline access to players’ medical records, X-rays and other important information. Football is the only professional sport to use tablets for this purpose and, for most teams, the tablets have been in use for two years.
“At any given moment, each NFL team has 53 active-roster players,” says Dr. Matava, who serves as the head physician for the St. Louis Rams. “In the event of a significant injury that requires transport to the hospital or use of medication, we have immediate access to vital information such as a player’s medical history, medication usage and drug allergies, which allows for faster evaluation and treatment.”
Team doctors can also use a tablet to immediately review X-rays taken in another location—while remaining on the sideline to observe the game and potentially assist other players.
Another innovation is the addition of a specialized “eye in the sky” athletic trainer, unaffiliated with a team’s medical staff, who looks for potential injuries from a booth located high in the stands. From this unique vantage point, the trainer can spot potential injuries as soon as they occur and share that information directly with the team physician and head athletic trainer. In the upcoming season, the “eye in the sky” will also have the ability to stop a game so that a player can be immediately evaluated if an injury is suspected but he continues to play.
To further support this effort, the NFL has also adopted sideline video monitors dedicated to injury review, which are only accessible to the team physician and head athletic trainer. “Once an injury occurs, the play is tagged so we can watch it happen from multiple angles, in slow motion, or in reverse. This has been extremely beneficial for concussion assessments and evaluating orthopedic injuries,” says Dr. Matava.
Concussions are one of the more significant concerns related to players’ immediate and long-term health because they can lead to serious complications such as brain injuries. The sideline tablet uses a proprietary concussion-assessment program, which is faster and more accurate than previous methods. The program takes five to six minutes to administer, and it evaluates a player’s memory function, mental processing speed and balance. The program can also compare a player’s assessment score against his prior scores and baseline testing, allowing for a more objective and thorough evaluation.
NFL-funded research efforts to reduce concussion-related injury include helmets with stronger head protection and real-time impact sensors, and turf designed to reduce the risk of injuries caused by impact. Some of this research is being coordinated with U.S. military researchers, who are developing improvements to paratrooper helmets.
“We want to make the game as safe as possible, so there’s really no downside,” says Dr. Matava. “With the support of the NFL, we’re light years of ahead of where we were even 10 years ago. The players know we’re doing everything we can for them, so with these innovations we’re just able to do that job even better.”