Stanford Medicine Newsletter Updates For the Local Community


Field science

Teamwork advances sports medicine research

Several players with the 49ers wear sensors to help Stanford researchers measure the impact of blocks and tackles.


In conjunction with Newton’s laws of motion—most notably the one about force equaling mass times acceleration—the San Francisco 49ers are helping physicians and scientists at Stanford University Medical Center learn more about the biomechanics of football injuries.

The 49ers’ medical director, Daniel Garza, MD, an emergency and sports medicine physician at Stanford Hospital & Clinics, is working with two research assistants to measure the impact of blocks and tackles by using pressure sensors worn by some of the players in their uniforms.

“It’s unprecedented for an NFL team to support research at this level,” said Garza, who is also an assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery and of emergency medicine at Stanford’s School of Medicine.

Mutual benefit

The project reflects what coaches and physicians with the 49ers describe as a unique and mutually beneficial relationship. Stanford Hospital & Clinics is the only academic research hospital providing comprehensive medical care to an NFL team and has served as the official medical provider of Stanford Athletics for almost two decades. The 49ers, in turn, are helping Stanford advance the field of sports medicine.

“We have a population of elite athletes we can learn from,” said 49ers physician Gary Fanton, MD, a Stanford orthopaedic surgeon and clinical professor. “We can collect biomechanical data to improve our understanding of sports health and sports-related injuries.”

The 49ers’ co-owner John York, PhD, a retired clinical and research pathologist, supports the research efforts, Garza said. The NFL also has given its blessing, lifting the usual restrictions against computers on the sidelines so that Garza’s research assistants can collect and analyze data.

“We’re trying to understand the biomechanics of the trauma players receive so we can assess how well their body armor is working and what physicians should be looking out for,” Garza said.

Tracking data

Sensors are worn on the chest and abdomen of some offensive players and in the shoulder pads of some defensive players. The players also wear wireless transmitters, which send information about the force and location of hits to laptop computers on the sidelines.

The researchers hope the data they collect will teach them more about the incidence of chest, abdominal and shoulder injuries in the sport. Eventually, their work could lead to advancements in protective gear and earlier diagnoses of medical problems, Garza said.

The researchers are conducting a second experiment, using infrared cameras to capture and measure heat emanating from players as they rest on the sidelines during breaks in the game or after changes of ball possession.

The goal is to identify and help players who may be predisposed to heat illness. After intense exercise, blood flow normally increases to arteries, veins and capillaries just below the skin to help the body cool down. This mechanism is particularly active in the cheek region, one of the body’s natural radiators. Given the amount of padding worn by football players, the cheeks become a particularly important outlet for heat dissipation, researchers say.

Preliminary findings suggest that after heavy exertion, players with a history of heat illness have less vascular flow to their cheeks. The researchers hope their data will pave the way to detecting heat stress in players before they suffer any ill effects, as well as serve as the basis for new tools or equipment to prevent overheating in the first place.

Official partnership

Stanford Hospital is now the official health-care partner of the San Francisco 49ers. The new alliance, which kicked off during the pre-season, will give 49ers fans at home games the opportunity to talk to medical staff from different parts of the hospital, such as the Heart Center, Neurosciences Center and Cancer Center, and pick up free educational materials at a booth in “Faithful City” near Gate 4 of Candlestick Park.

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