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Embeddable sensors: The future of high-impact professional football

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By Andrew Deck

Fitness-related wearables have been on the rise, with the increasing popularity of “smart clothing” and devices such as Fitbit. To improve on the accuracy of these existing biosensors, many sports scientists are developing new sensors that can be embedded into our bodies.

For Dr. Benny Lo, a lecturer in medical robotics at Imperial College London, embeddable devices promise a new level of depth and efficiency in data collection.

“As sports scientists we are interested in muscle fatigue,” Lo said, “whether training is pushing the muscle too far or not enough.”

If there is too much muscle fatigue, recovery may take needlessly long, but if there’s not enough training, an athlete will not be able to perform optimally, according to Lo. 

The increased accuracy of embeddable sensors will enable the “optimal balance” to be reached, he added.

Take for example, the measurement of core body temperature. Lo explained that it is extremely difficult to receive an accurate measure of core body temperature using external sensors, and a thorough measurement requires that an athlete stand still to obtain an oral or armpit reading.

A new ingestible thermometer, in the form of a small pill, however, promises constant, real-time core body temperature readings while an athlete is on the move.

“It will be especially useful in hot environments, like Qatar,” which is hosting the 2022 World Cup, Lo said.

The core body temp readings could be used “to test whether athletes can cope with the high temperatures or not, and to what level they can push themselves,” he explained. 

In addition to ingestible thermometers, embeddables currently under development include oxygen, glucose, lactate acid and pH-level sensors. The sensors will likely be small and injected into tissue adjacent to a primary muscle, avoiding the recovery time and complications associated with surgery. 

Faster and more accurate data from embeddables, rather than wearables, has broad implications for athletes, many of whom rely on collecting blood samples after training sessions to assess performance. It may take weeks at a time to receive the results of these blood tests. With embeddables, “every training session’s data can be collected seamlessly and immediately,” Lo said. 

Healing through sensing

Beyond performance tracking, embeddables have the potential to vastly improve sports medicine. When it comes to injury detection, many embeddables sensors are already in beta.

Take FitGuard, for example, a “smart mouth guard” that detects the power and frequency of head impacts in contact sports to prevent long-term head injuries.

The NFL, NHL and other sports leagues that have been criticized as negligent toward the long-term effects of concussions on professional athletes maybenefit from heightened monitoring of head injuries through this technology.

Embeddables also bring promise to the field of injury recovery, especially in professional sports where a month on the bench for an elite player may cost clubs or franchises big money, according to Lo.

During an initial surgery for an injury, embeddable sensors can be placed near the injured area of the body noninvasively, Lo said. There, the sensors can “provide feedback on the healing process and alert [physicians] if there are any infections or complications in the few days after surgery,” he added. 

Despite the promise of this innovation, ethical dilemmas are likely to accompany the rise in embeddable technologies.

In the high-stakes professional sports world, data from embeddables would be valuable to athletic clubs or sponsors as well. Athletes may feel pressure to share their sensor data with these organizations, even if doing so comes at their own expense.

If embeddable sensor data shows an athlete will take an unexpectedly long time to recover when a contract is being renewed or rewritten, that may hurt their earnings, Lo predicted.

As a result, “data privacy and security issues will need to be carefully considered, especially for elite athletes,” he said.

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