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Football Helmets, Intended To Prevent Concussions, Protect Brain Only 20 Percent Better Than Wearing Nothing At All
A researcher whose findings may suggest that football helmets protect a player's brain from rotational hits only 20 percent better than if he were playing bareheaded, is urging the football industry to "stop putting its head in the sand." Athletic manufacturers must reimagine helmet design, Dr. John D. Lloyd, research director of Brains, Inc. told the International Science Times. "The football helmet manufactures have not been deficient in not being able to figure out that their helmets are not fully effective" Lloyd said, "but now that we have this information, it's important to relay it to parents and children." But athletic equipment manufacturers said Lloyd's claims are baseless.
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"To suggest that a player is only 20 percent more protected with a helmet than without one is not supported by any peer-reviewed science I have read," Mike Oliver, executive director of the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE), an association of athletic equipment manufacturers and sports medicine specialists, told the International Science Times. "By this logic, if players played the game at the same speeds and under the same rules, but without a helmet, the number of serious head injuries would only increase by about 20 percent. I would suggest the illogic of that statement is axiomatic." Efforts to understand the role rotational injuries play concussions has been at the forefront of research, some of it funded by the NOCSAE, for decades, Oliver said. But there's still no scientific consensus as to the exact level of rotational force necessary to cause a concussion in different individuals.
But Brain Inc.'s research on football helmets was done independently of the athletic equipment industry's interests, Lloyd said. "This research was not done for any of the football manufacturers," he said. "They're not very happy with it," he added, saying, "I've received an email or two from some manufacturers saying, 'We know the helmets don't provide protection against concussion, but we can't fix it.'" Lloyd is not convinced. "I'm saying, we can fix it and, yes we can design better helmets. Let's not bury our heads in the sand. We can do better and the children deserve better." Indeed, all the helmets Lloyd and Conidi tested were medium-sized helmets for an average-sized male. "High school players absolutely use these helmets," Lloyd said.
Lloyd, who is lead author of the resulting study he'll be submitting to a peer-reviewed medical journal, and co-author Dr. Frank Conidi, director of the Florida Center for Headache and Sports Neurology, put complex sensors inside their testing dummy head, which measured the linear and rotational responses to repeated 12 mile-per-hour impacts on 10 popular brands of football helmets sold in the U.S. To give the helmets their due, they did provide good protection from linear impacts, or those leading to bruising and skull fracture: The helmets succeeded in reducing the risk of skull fracture by 60 to 70 percent and the risk of focal brain tissue bruising by 70 to 80 percent. But they were inadequate when it came to protecting players from rotational injury. There is research that concludes otherwise: A 2012 study that examined the extent to which football helmets reduced linear and rotational accelerations at even higher impacts of 16.7 miles per hour found that almost all the tested helmets reduced rotational accelerations to levels that were below concussion level, even as researchers disagree as to what those levels are.
In the Brain, Inc. study, the Adams a2000 Pro Elite helmet, which lists for about $200, provided the best protection against concussion, but the least against closed head injury) (That helmet, designed for high school, collegiate and professional play, was also given a "Not Recommended" rating by Virginia Tech Wake Forest University when it rated adult football helmets last May.) Of the 10 helmet brands tested at Brains, Inc., the Schutt Air Advantage provided the worst protection against concussion. Overall, the Riddell 360 provided the most protection against closed head injury. Here's the results:
Of the helmet brands tested, the Schutt Air Advantage provided the worst protection against concussion. Overall, the Riddell 360 provided the most protection against closed head injury and the Adams a2000 the least, despite rating the best against concussion.
Even the Reidel Revolution Speed helmet, which Brain, Inc. gave to a high school football team in Tampa it sponsors (and gleans research data from) fared badly. (Brain, Inc., also donated a machine that monitors the brain waves of players who end up with concussions.) "There's nothing currently available on the market that provides sufficient protection to the brain," Lloyd told the International Science Times. "I understand the manufacturers are upset, but football players need to understand that their brains are vulnerable to serious injury, because football helmets are only providing them with about 20 percent protection from brain injury."
But one of the world's preeminent manufacturers of football helmets, Schutt Sports, in Litchfield, Ill., feels it makes the risks abundently clear. Indeed, Schutt Sports won't even allow visitors to enter its website without checking a box acknowledging they've read the warning: "Contact in football may result in Concussion/Brain Injury which no helmet can prevent. and that (the all caps are Schutt's) NO HELMET SYSTEM CAN PROTECT YOU FROM SERIOUS BRAIN AND/OR NECK INJURIES INCLUDING PARALYSIS OR DEATH. TO AVOID THESE RISKS, DO NOT ENGAGE IN THE SPORT OF FOOTBALL."
And, since July, all Schutt football helmets come with an interactive label, scannable by mobile device, that links to a "Concussion App" developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for "immediate access to the most up to date concussion information and knowledge, including appropriate equipment to use for certain sports activities." Schutt's chief executive officer, Robert Erb, said in a press release at the time that the App would "make the very best information from the very best source available immediately and permanently on our helmets." Erb did not return a phone call from the International Science Times for comment Tuesday.
The linear and rotational impacts involved in head injury is complex: Imagine dropping a pencil on a table: That's a linear impact. The pencil will then bob around the table in a haphazard fashion: That's comparable to a rotational impact. Bio-mechanic engineers have known for more than 70 years that the mechanics of head injury involve a rotational response to a linear impact, and can lead to serious brain damage including concussion, brain injury complications and brain bleeds. But trying to prove it has been another matter.
Lloyd is looking at alternative materials to the polypropylene hard helmet, and not just for football. He's looking to change the helmets used in skiing, cycling hockey and even the military helmets. He's testing so-called "non-Newtonian materials" for helmets, which can harden and soften on an as-needed basis. A glancing blow to the head, which may seem innocuous, could generate a lot of rotational inertial impact. A non-Newtonian material may remain soft to absorb such an impact. On the other hand, a direct hit may come up against the non-Newtonian material that would harden instantaneously in reponse. Lloyd is working on a helmet protype, which he plans to unveil at the American Academy of Neurology's 66th Annual Meeting in Philadelphia this spring. Lloyd said he would not hold a patent on any of that material: It's already held by the material manufacturers.
"Protection against concussion and complications of brain injury is especially important for young players, including elementary and middle school, high school and college athletes, whose still-developing brains are more susceptible to the lasting effects of trauma," said Conidi, who is also vice chair of the American Academy of Neurology's Sports Neurology Section, in a press release. "Alarmingly, those that offered the least protection are among the most popular on the field. Generations of football and other sports participants have been under the assumption that their brains are protected by their investment in headwear protection."
But right now, it's the National Football League that's taking the heat for head injuries on the gridiron. About 4,500 former NFL players filed a lawsuit against the NFL in U.S. district court in Philadelphia, accusing the league of downplaying concussion risk. As many as 20,000 could ultimately be eligible for payment, Reuters reported. Last year, a federal judge hearing the case rejected as insufficient a proposed settlement of $5 million for each ex-NFL football player diagnosed with brain damage resulting from years of repeated hits to the head in games and practices.
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