High school football season is rapidly approaching. With seemingly never-ending media attention on the long-term dangers of concussions, parents are searching for ways to keep their kids safe.
Not surprisingly, helmet manufacturers claim that the latest technology in their products might prevent some of these injuries.
On one company’s website appears a claim that its helmet’s shock absorbers provide “an optimal response for both high and low energy hits, and the linear forces that can cause injuries.”
In a statement released after being found liable by a Colorado jury for failing to warn players of the risks of concussions, another company still stressed that its helmet is “ the most protective football headgear for the athlete.”
Interestingly, a third manufacturer requires readers to agree to a concussion-risk disclaimer before they can even access its website.
Are these claims valid? Should parents buy these newer, more expensive, high-tech helmets?
A study presented last week at the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine’s Annual Meeting suggests that the newer helmets might not decrease the risk of concussions.
Dr. Timothy McGuine and other researchers at the University of Wisconsin collected data from 36 high schools in Wisconsin during the 2012 football season. Athletic trainers documented the brand, model and purchase year of each player’s helmet. They also recorded types of mouthguards, the number of practices and games and the number of concussions that occurred.
In 2012, 8.5 percent of the players at those schools suffered sports-related concussions. The authors found no difference in the rate of concussion based on a player’s age, size, year in school or competition level of his team. More importantly, they found no difference in the rate of concussion for players wearing helmets from different companies or from different purchase years.
“According to our research, lower risks of sustaining a sports-related concussion (SRC) and its severity were not improved based on a specific manufacturer. In addition, the SRC rates were similar for players wearing new helmets, as compared to those wearing older ones,” McGuine explained. “It is also interesting to note, that players who wore a generic mouth guard provided by the school had a lower rate of SRC compared to players with more expensive mouth guards.”
It’s worth pointing out that this is just one study among many that I expect to be published in the next few years. Sports medicine doctors want to decrease the number and severity of concussions, and helmets might be one way to do it. Helmet manufacturers unquestionably want to create the helmet that decreases the risk the most, even if only to increase sales and profits.
The idea that any helmet could ever completely eliminate the risk of concussion in football is ridiculous. The nature of the repetitive subconcussive blows and the whiplash effect that causes the brain to slam into the skull when a kid is hit in the body would seem almost impossible for any helmet to prevent. If newer technology has much benefit, I would argue that sensors placed into helmets that alert athletic trainers and doctors when a significant impact has occurred would be more helpful.
Rather than parents spending an extra $100 or $200 on fancier helmets, they should spend an hour talking to their kids about the dangers of concussions.
We’ve seen numerous examples where professional players admit that they don’t tell their teams’ medical staffs about having concussions in order to stay on the field. That attitude exists at all levels of sports, including high school. Parents must emphasize the importance of being honest about concussion symptoms.
Additionally, athletic directors and coaches could spend money on hiring athletic trainers rather than buying the new expensive helmets. No one is more familiar or better trained in concussion management than the certified athletic trainers that work with football players every day. They can recognize an injured player’s signs and symptoms, make a diagnosis and facilitate evaluation by doctors.
Finally, doctors and coaches can shift attention from newer helmet technology to baseline concussion testing for each player at the start of the season. We can also mandate proper rest and thorough neurologic testing every time an athlete suffers a concussion. We have to stop skirting concussion rules to get players back in the game at tremendous long-term risk to their health. It is time to eliminate “ding” and “getting his bell rung” and ”concussion-like symptoms” from football vocabulary.
We need to focus on steps that we can take today. These measures can help to decrease the chance of repeat concussions. They can minimize the chance of much more severe injuries that can result from allowing a player to return before his brain has fully recovered.
Maybe a helmet manufacturer really will make a concussion-proof helmet one day. I hope it happens. Until then, these essential efforts by coaches, athletic directors, parents and doctors will help protect our kids much more than the fancier helmets will.
Dr. David Geier is an orthopaedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist in Charleston. For more information about football injuries and other sports medicine topics, go to Dr. Geier’s blog at drdavidgeier.com.