Total Impact

An ounce of prevention

Some of the best ideas come from drinks at a bar with friends. Theo Versteegh’s revolutionary idea to mitigate concussion in sport was no different.

Almost five years ago, around the time famed hockey player Sidney Crosby suffered his second career-altering concussion, Versteegh, BSc’98, MSc’10, PhD’16, was at a bar with friends, watching the game on television when Crosby suffered the blow.

“They were showing the hit on repeat. As a physiotherapist, I thought if his neck was stronger, he wouldn’t have had such a violent hit and ultimately, wouldn’t have been out as long as he was,” Versteegh said. “It’s not just about neck strength. You still have to train the neck muscles’ responsiveness.”

Soon afterward, the idea for TopSpin 360 was born.

Theo Versteegh

Using a small weight attached to a rod, extended from the top of the helmet, athletes roll their heads to spin the weight around the whole head. The faster the weight spins, the more centripetal force is generated, and the stronger the neck muscles get. The device allows for full mobility of the neck, as opposed to the traditional single-directional training currently used.

As a former Mustangs football player, Versteegh hopes this device will be incorporated into weight rooms across all sports, thus protecting athletes from concussions.

“It was a matter of developing a method of strengthening the neck that taught the muscles to absorb a blow and also to react quickly, to kick in,” he said. “You can have the strongest neck in the world, but if you don’t contract when you get hit in the head, you’re still going to get concussed and have your head flop around.”

Last season, the Western Mustangs football team was the first to take advantage of the TopSpin 360, with hopes of lessening the occurrence of concussions. The Mustangs went on to win their first Vanier Cup in 23 years.

Last year, the Philadelphia Eagles were the first NFL team to test drive the device. “And they did pretty well this year,” laughed Versteegh, of the Eagles first-ever Super Bowl championship in team history.

From a physiotherapy perspective, Versteegh was confident he knew how to strengthen the neck. But he wanted to put some time and effort into exploring the market, not simply releasing another gimmick. He found nothing with the approach he had in mind.

“The amount of work that was going to go into proving this idea would work would be quite onerous. It would be a good opportunity to turn it into a PhD,” said Versteegh, who approached Health Sciences professor Dave Walton, who took Versteegh on as a PhD student. “At the end of the day, if I proved it didn’t work, then it wouldn’t be all for naught. I’d have a PhD at the end.”

Having played football as an undergraduate student, Versteegh knew the risk of concussion in football intimately. He connected with Mustangs head football coach Greg Marshall about starting a pilot project.

“He (Marshall) was on board for anything that would decrease the risk of concussions. He was quite helpful in setting up the initial pilot study,” Versteegh said.

The study involved training eight players, chosen for their high risk of concussion, on the TopSpin 360 for the summer prior to the 2014 season. They were then compared to a group of players who trained using traditional methods.

Versteegh’s findings showed the group that trained on the TopSpin 360 improved their flexibility and neck strength more than the traditional group. He then followed those players through the season. None of the players who trained on the TopSpin 360 suffered a concussion; two players from the traditional group did.

The first prototype looked like “a bit of a dog’s breakfast,” Versteegh laughed. “But, fortunately it worked, which is the key.”

With some finessing, Versteegh designed a more functional ‘to market’ prototype and the Mustangs purchased nine units, using them for pre-season training. Versteegh noticed significant improvements in player performance on the device over the summer.

“There’s a lot of increased awareness on concussion. But there is nothing on the prevention side of things,” he said. “This is something the athlete can do themselves to help decrease their own concussion risk. Assuming things pan out as we hope, it will allow the athlete to take control of their own concussion risk.”

Photo credit: TechAlliance

Versteegh has since sold a pair of devices to the Mayo Clinic, a medical research group based in Rochester, Minnesota that has concussion-focussed researchers interested in exploring devices designed to prevent concussions. The clinic is planning to conduct out-of-season studies with a group of hockey players.

The connection with the strength and conditioning coaches from the Eagles has also led to negotiations with a pair of major U.S. football college teams in regards to purchasing multiple units. Versteegh will also be heading the NFL combine later this month in Indiana to showcase the potential benefits of his device, since it is not being made available to the general public.

Versteegh stressed the importance of a strength and conditioning coach, or an athletic trainer, administering the device.

“The last thing we want is a hockey mom or dad buying this for their child and saying, ‘You’ve got a big game tomorrow; you better train on your TopSpin 360’ and they train really hard the night before,” he said. “They will actually be more prone to injury because they have fatigued out all of the muscles. Proper amount of rest between the use of it is key.”

TopSpin 360 has not been a solo effort.

Versteegh credited TechAlliance of Southwestern Ontario, a regional innovation centre based in Western Research Parks, with pointing him in the right direction, from accessing government funding to business support for start-up businesses to suggesting they enter the Synapse Life Sciences Competition in Hamilton last year. TopSpin 360 won that competition.

Through the Ontario Centres of Excellence, TopSpin 360 garnered SmartStart funding which provided capital to further develop the business.

And then there are his connections to Western.

“While attending Western, I was fortunate to be accepted in the Collaborative Training Program in Musculoskeletal Health Research,” Versteegh stressed. “This provided a deeper look and understanding of the many facets of conducting musculoskeletal research.

“I still want to continue to do research, but I’m also cognizant of the fact any research I do will automatically be biased. I’d like to find researchers with no affiliation,” he added. “I’m fully aware we don’t have a randomized controlled trial that says training on this for X amount of time will decrease your concussion risk, but hopefully in the next few years that proof will continue to grow. But there is enough evidence that would suggest there is more potential for benefit than harm.’

At the end of the day, Versteegh said there haven’t been any negative effects training on the TopSpin 360, athletes are improving their neck strength and those in the field of strength and conditioning are seeing the benefits for themselves.

“I just want to do what I can to protect the sports that I love. Yes, concussions are scary. But hopefully, with something like this, we can at least screen for personal concussion risk and give a means to decrease that risk,” said Versteegh.

angie wiseman

"An ounce of prevention" written by Angie Wiseman
Editorial Communications Coordinator