What parents should know about football helmets and concussions

All high school football helmets must meet standards set by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment. The standards are based largely on impact testing performed in a laboratory. (Photo provided by Southern Impact Research Center)

High school football season is months away, but parents across the country soon will begin preparing their kids for the upcoming season. With all of the attention given to concussions, it is no surprise that parents look to find the best helmet possible to protect their children.

Since the brains of children and adolescents are still developing, it is critical that we decrease the trauma their brains suffer. Helmets were initially designed to prevent skull fractures, and they are remarkably effective for that purpose. Unfortunately, they are somewhat less effective at decreasing the impacts to the brains within the skulls.

All high school football helmets must meet standards set by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE). The standards are based largely on impact testing performed in a laboratory.

We should look at how football helmets do in the real world — specifically how well they prevent concussions and concussion symptoms in practices and games. Are newer helmets with the latest technology better than older models? Are new helmets generally better than used helmets that have been reconditioned?

Last month, Christy Collins and other researchers at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital published the largest population-based study to date on helmets and concussion outcomes. They collected data from the National High School Sports-Related Injury Surveillance System from high schools across the country from 2008 through 2013.

Athletic trainers at those schools collected data on the concussions suffered by their football players, as well as their symptoms, the resolution times of those symptoms, and the return-to-play times. They also compiled the age and reconditioned status of the concussed athletes’ helmets and the helmet brands and models.

The authors of the study did find small differences in the proportion of football players who suffered concussions based on the helmet make and model. Perhaps more importantly, the nature of the concussions varied little between the players wearing the two most common brands of helmets — Riddell and Schutt. The specific symptoms and the number of concussion symptoms, as well as the time for return to play were similar for players wearing Riddell and Schutt helmets.

Likewise, there was little difference in symptoms and return-to-play times between specific helmet models.

When looking at new helmets versus older ones that had been reconditioned, there was little difference in the time required for an athlete to return to play or in specific concussion symptoms and the number of symptoms.

What should parents think about this data?

Buying an expensive new helmet with the latest technology might not be a bad idea, but that step alone won’t necessarily prevent a young football player from suffering a concussion. In fact, these fancy helmets don’t appear to have better results in terms of concussion symptoms than other new helmets or even reconditioned helmets.

If an athlete is going to wear a used helmet, he and his parents and coaches should ensure that it has been fully inspected for damage and properly reconditioned. NOCSAE strongly recommends that helmets be reconditioned and recertified every year. Few states require yearly helmet reconditioning, so some schools may not perform those checks regularly.

The health of our kids playing football is vitally important. Helmet manufacturers will continue to incorporate better materials and designs to withstand more impacts to the head. But we must continue to watch the on-field performance of these helmets to see if they are truly protecting these young brains.

Dr. David Geier is an orthopaedic surgeon in Charleston. For more information about football injuries and other sports medicine topics, go to drdavidgeier.com.