UNC on cutting edge of body temperature technology

Posted by ESPN.com’s Heather Dinich

As an exercise and sports science major, North Carolina defensive end E.J. Wilson is well aware of the experimentation needed to advance science in sports, and his appreciation for it led him to be among the first to volunteer to try the Tar Heels’ latest cutting-edge technology.

Well, technically, he had to swallow it.

The bigger-than-an-Advil CorTemp pills are ingestible thermometers that helped the UNC coaches and athletic trainers monitor the players’ core body temperature this summer, and in turn schedule breaks accordingly. The experiment was designed to help the players avoid serious heat-related illnesses and help the staff distinguish the difference between heat problems and concussions.

Here’s how it works: Each athlete swallows one pill about four to five hours before practice or a game, and the pill makes its way through the small intestine and the digestive tract. (No worries, it’s like ma’s meatloaf, it only stays in your system for a day.) Eighteen players were monitored this summer, and almost every position and body type was tested.

Two athletic trainers walked around with handheld monitors (Wilson described them as “big graphing calculators,”) and every few minutes put it up to the players’ abdomens or backs so it could read their core body temperature. During the breaks the players were monitored every minute. The study was done twice during training camp and they’ll do it a few more times during the regular season.

“It was fascinating,” Wilson said. “As a little kid I watched "The Magic School Bus" a lot, and it was kind of like having a little Magic School Bus floating around in there. What they told me was I was hydrating well, but during practice I was drinking more water than Gatorade. As I was going through practice, it seemed like I was hydrated, but my muscles were getting dehydrated, so I had to drink a lot more Gatorade. It actually really helped. It made me feel a lot better during practice. It was actually a very successful experiment in my opinion.”

It was only the latest advance in a long grant-funded concussion study at UNC. For the past decade, UNC has been doing research on concussions and mild-traumatic brain injuries. About 60 players have accelerometers in their helmets, little gadgets that measure G-forces and impact. Every hit is measured and recorded by a computer in a trunk on the sideline. The sensors also have the ability to measure body temperature, but they were looking for some confirmation that those devices were accurate, so they decided to try the CorTemp pills.

“We’re always looking at the practice schedule in terms of the different periods we have during practice, how to structure practice, when to do certain periods, and probably most importantly, when to take breaks,” said Scott Trulock, the head athletic trainer for football. “We’ve always had to guess what’s the ideal time period to take a break? This was a way we could put some science to that.”

Each pill cost about $40, but the project is funded through the grant that became possible because of Kevin Guskiewicz, chair of UNC’s department of exercise and sports science.

Normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees. Trulock said a dangerous core body temperature would be around 104. An ideal body temperature from a competing standpoint would be 100 to 101 -- breaking a sweat but not exhausted and laboring. When the Tar Heels were done with their “flex and stretch” part of practice, the players were at their ideal temperature. As practice went on, they’d hover around 102 and 103, and that’s when they’d take a break. About seven or eight minutes into the break was when they got back down to the ideal temperature.

“It was an interesting study to see exactly how quickly core temperature went up, and how quickly it did go down,” said UNC coach Butch Davis. “We talked a little bit about did we need more breaks, did the breaks need to be longer? It was interesting to see that typically we would take a five-minute break and everyone would be able to take their helmets off, get in front of the fans, get out of the sun.

"If we were practicing in the afternoon, and it was 97 degrees was a five-minute break maybe as good as a three-minute break, or did instantly in three minutes the core temperature drop significantly enough a kid could’ve potentially gone back into practice or a game? So there’s still things they’re still studying on it, but I thought it was very interesting and I hope people do recognize our sports medicine program is on the cutting edge of things like that.”

Trulock said the experiment is likely to continue this fall.

“It’s like anything else with science, when you answer one question, you raise two more,” he said. “We got some valuable information to help us get an idea of what we’re looking for. It’s definitely a program we’re very proud of. Our goal is to make the game safer, and science is helpful in terms of helping us understand how [concussions] occur, when they occur, how to prevent them, and this tool has really helped us gather a lot of information and make us better able to make decisions on returning athletes and identifying [concussions] when they happen.”