Do Certain Football Helmets Prevent Concussions?

UW Health Sports Medicine: Two football playersMadison, Wis. – You're the parent of a 15-year-old who is 6'2" and 210 pounds, runs the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds and has posters of Charles Woodson and Monteé Ball on his bedroom wall. Despite his youth, he has a good chance of starting on the varsity football team this year. You're happy he enjoys the sport and is thriving, but you also know football causes more concussions than any other sport and have read the sad stories of college and pro players who struggled mightily with the aftermath of multiple concussions.

You want your kid to be safe and wonder if you can do better than the football helmets his school provides. So you fire up an Internet browser and find these descriptions on the websites of helmet manufacturers:

"A cool, aggressive shell-design, comfortable, fitted liner with Riddell® CRT™ (Concussion Reduction Technology) - the Revolution® Edge has the comfort and stability in a fitted helmet."

"The Shock Bonnet features adaptive Aware-Flow® shock absorbers that adapt to the energy of the hit, and therefore offer outstanding protection against hits of all energy levels."

A reasonable person may wonder what any of that means. A discerning consumer will see through the marketing jargon and wonder if its implicit claim – our helmets are better than others at protecting football players from head injuries – is true.

That's what UW Health athletic trainer and researcher Tim McGuine, PhD, ATC, and Pediatric and Sports Medicine physician Alison Brooks, MD, MPH, and are trying to find out, too.

In a study that will use data collected during the upcoming Wisconsin high school football season, McGuine and Brooks hope to determine if helmets produced by Riddell, Schutt and Xenith – the three companies that supply the vast majority of helmets used in high school football in Wisconsin – are superior in concussion prevention.

Right now, any such claim is conjecture.

Nationwide, all football helmets used in high school competition are certified by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE), which performs a series of laboratory drop and impact tests to insure each helmet meets established safety standards. But that standard is not the absolute prevention of concussions.

"The reality is all of the helmets work extremely well for what they were designed for – to prevent skull fractures and facial injuries," says Dr. Brooks.

But what about concussions? The manufacturers' marketing efforts have spurred more confusion than resolution.

"We were getting questions from coaches and parents about helmet companies saying their helmets can prevent concussions," says Dr. Brooks. "There's really no evidence to support that. There has been no large-scale research study to look at helmets head-to-head to see if one helmet prevents concussions better than another."

The study will track approximately 2,000 football players who volunteered to be subjects during the upcoming season, starting with summer practices and extending through the playoffs. The first step is to learn about their sports and corresponding injury histories, so each subject is asked an array of questions about head injuries sustained during their entire football lives and beyond, even if that meant tracing their careers all the way back to Pop Warner leagues or accounting for a tumble from a bicycle when they were 11 years old.

"How many years have you played tackle football in a league? How many concussions did you have last year? If you had a concussion, were you knocked unconscious?" says Dr. McGuine, running off a long list of factors for which the investigators must account. "To do this effectively we have to track how many times they practice, how many times they play, their injury histories. It's going to be a multifactorial approach. We're going to look at all the variables."

The study's catalyzing triggers are concussions, which account for 13.2 percent of all injuries amongst high school athletes, according to Ohio State research Dawn Comstock. When study participants are injured during practice or a game, McGuine and Brooks will work with the school's athletic trainers to record the event's most minute details. The player's age, his level of play, the cause of the injury (was he blocking or being blocked? Tackling or being tackled?), whether he was playing in a game or practice, and on artificial turf or natural grass – all of the factors contributing to the concussion will analyzed.

And they'll also record the helmets the players wear when they are hurt, which will be integrated with the rest of the data to determine the veracity of the helmet manufacturers' claims.

"At the end of the season we're going to look at how many concussions occurred and see if there was a predominance of concussions in one type of helmet versus another," says Dr. Brooks.

At its conclusion the study results will be submitted for review, and the investigators hope their conclusions can help guide parents who are trying to decide whether paying a lot of money – some helmets cost almost $400 – for a custom helmet will pay off by decreasing the chance their son will suffer a concussion on the football field.

Date Published: 08/28/2012

News tag(s):  sports

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