Football Head Injuries: Can Concussions Really Be Stopped by Modern-Day Helmets?


"These facts highlight the concern about the voluntary standards for new and reconditioned football helmets," said Udall.

Dr. Gregory O'Shanick, president and medical director of the Center for Neurorehabilitation Services in Richmond, Va., said that most helmets are single-use items and must be monitored to prevent injury.

"They are designed to either increase stopping distance with foam inserts or dissipate the kinetic force by fracturing the shell and thus preventing force transmission into the skull and brain," said O'Shanick. "As with children's safety seats for cars, once they have been in an impact situation, their structural properties are changed and they afford less protection."

Safety of sports equipment is monitored by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, an independent trade organization responsible for testing athletic equipment. It has not changed its football helmet safety guidelines since 1973.

The National Athletic Equipment Reconditioning Association, or NAERA, refurbishes about 1.7 million helmets a year that are usually at least a year old. Ed Fischer, executive director of the NAERA, announced last week that, beginning Sept. 1, 2011, the company will not certify helmets that are more than 10 years old. While the helmets are usually only a couple of years old, Fisher said he has refurbished helmets that were up to 20 years old.

As a former football coach, Fisher said that he often looks at kids' helmets and wonders how old they might be.

"I think this is a really good thing to happen for player safety, from pee wee players to the NFL," said Fisher.

Nuts and Bolts of Concussions

A concussion is caused when the brain is shaken so forcefully that it hits the inside of the skull, resulting brain trauma. Handfuls of studies have contributed to the growing concern of head injuries, particularly concussions, in the game of American football and other contact sports.

According to statistics from the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, about 47 percent of high school football players sustain at least one concussion each season. And 35 percent of those who reportedly suffered from a concussion actually sustained two or more in the same season.

"Traumatic Brain Injury isn't an event that you recover from," said Pascrell. "It's an event that you live with for the rest of your life."

O'Shanick echoed Pascrell's statement and said that children are even more susceptible to adverse long-term effects of concussion.

"This is the right direction," said O'Shanick. "Children's traumatic brain injuries are more potentially devastating than adult since their brains are still developing until their mid-twenties. Damage at an early age harms the foundation for later brain growth and development."

Football Helmets Still Don't Offer Full Concussion Protection

While today's helmets have come a long way from their leather predecessors, they still do not fully protect from blows to the head.

"Helmets today are very good at protecting things like skull fractures and intracranial bleeding, which was a major cause of death in the 1960s," said Dr. Robert Cantu, director of sports medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital and senior advisor to the NFL Head, Neck and Spine Committee. "In reality, what we need today is the science that will allow us to make a better helmet that will protect against concussion, and that science hasn't been done yet."

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