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Modern football helmets no better than ‘leatherheads’ at protecting against concussions, study finds

Although 21st-century helmets do help prevent severe skull fractures, they are no better than vintage leather helmets at protecting against concussions
Although 21st-century helmets do help prevent severe skull fractures, they are no better than vintage leather helmets at protecting against concussions.

As I’ve noted here before, recent studies have shown that “state-of-the-art” (and expensive) running shoes don’t deliver what their ads promise: fewer injuries.

In fact, some modern running shoes (those designed for “motion control”) may even increase the risk of injuries.

Now, along comes a study on another common piece of sports equipment: the football helmet. And it’s reached a similar conclusion: Although 21st-century helmets do help prevent severe skull fractures, they are no better than vintage leather helmets at protecting against the more frequent type of football-related head injury — concussion.

When it comes to concussions, football helmet safety hasn’t made all that much progress over the past 100 years.

That’s unsettling news, not just for professional football players, but also for all the kids who play the sport. As this new study points out in its introduction, high-school and collegiate football is the leading cause of sports-related concussions in the United States. Furthermore, most experts believe that at least 50 percent of our youth’s football-related concussions go unreported.

Study details
For the study, a team of Ohio researchers from the Cleveland Clinic’s Spine Research Laboratory and Case Western Reserve University tested 11 commonly used modern polycarbonate helmets and two early 20th-century “leatherhead” helmets. Each helmet was placed on a head form (representing a player’s head) and then struck with a large adult-sized varsity helmet that was attached to another head form. The tests involved many contact points (front, oblique front, lateral, oblique rear, rear) — the same ones used in tests conducted by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE).

But unlike the NOCSAE tests, this study’s tests were designed to simulate the routine, low-dose (75 g-forces or less) impacts that can cause concussions and lead to serious long-term neurological problems, including memory loss and depression.

To the researchers’ surprise, the old and new helmets performed equally in the tests. In fact, for many of the impacts — particularly frontal hits — the leather helmets performed better.

Neither helmet, however, protected fully against potentially concussion-causing hits.

The authors of the study do not recommend that players return to leather helmets. But they do say that it’s time for the development of new safety designs and testing standards for helmets — standards that will minimize the risk of both high-severity and low-severity impacts.

What needs to change
New helmets may not be the answer, however, at least when it comes to preventing concussions.

“Any kind of helmet, regardless of its structure, can’t prevent the brain from moving around in the skull,” said Pete Klinkhammer, associate director of services for the Brain Injury Association of Minnesota, in a phone interview Tuesday.

It’s that movement — the ricocheting of the brain inside the skull — that leads to injury, in part by shearing and damaging nerve fibers.

“Helmets can prevent catastrophic injuries,” said Klinkhammer, “but no helmet that we’re aware of can prevent concussions.”

Players need to wear helmets in contact sports, he added, but to reduce concussion injuries, they also need to be taught to play the game in ways that minimize the risk of severe hits to the head — using the hands rather than helmet to make first contact with an opposing player, for example.

Unlike with arms and other parts of the body, “you can’t use a cast to protect the brain,” Klinkhammer said. “But you can be taught to play differently.”

The helmet study was published in the Nov. 4 issue of the Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/09/2011 - 01:06 pm.

    This study confirms suspicions I had when I was coaching. I coached a different sport, where head contact was rare, but while conducting my own team practices, I had plenty of opportunity to watch football practice, and of course, faculty were encouraged to attend the games on weekends, so I saw a lot of high school football over the years.

    The laws of physics aren’t suspended just because what you’re involved with is a sport. When someone’s head is moving in a particular direction and suddenly stops or changes direction, inertia is still at work inside whatever helmet that person is wearing, no matter what it’s made of. The danger comes not only from impact directly, but from the way the game is currently played. I’m open to correction about this, but it strikes me that it would be difficult to change the game of football enough to come close to eliminating the risk of concussion. Even instructing kids to lead with their hands and arms instead of head and shoulders isn’t going to prevent incidental contact in a sport that largely relies on contact. Hockey is another sport that comes readily to mind in this context, and hockey helmets are, if anything, even less effective at mitigating impact.

    It’s not completely out of bounds to make the argument that, if you want your child to play a sport AND be an academic success, make sure s/he plays a sport that’s not so heavily reliant on physical contact: basketball, tennis, volleyball, soccer and others are often as physically demanding, and they have their share of injuries, too, but the injuries tend to be orthopedic, not neurologic. Playing competitive tennis might give you a bad knee for the rest of your life, but compared to brain damage, a bad knee seems pretty minor. You should still be able to limp onstage to accept that Nobel Prize…

  2. Submitted by David Frenkel on 02/02/2015 - 01:22 pm.


    The medical director for USA Hockey and a orthopedic surgeon at Mayo clinic has made the comment that helmets only prevent the players head from being split open to validate this article.
    Football by its nature is a physically violent sport which maybe can be tweaked but nothing will dramatically change the concussion issue. Some neurologists have made the argument that there is a relatively small number of players that get concussions compared to all the children that play football and that football is good exercise to combat many obesity related issues. Rational argument but probably not persuasive given the medical evidence of what we know about concussions and unfortunately what we don’t know.

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