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What’s Next for Concussions in Football?

No one helmet is better than the other, but new research funding could help change that.
February 4, 2011

As fans and players alike gear up for Super Bowl XLV this Sunday in Arlington, Texas where the Green Bay Packers will face off against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Mike Oliver, the executive director of the National Operating Committee on Sports Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE), wants to make one “fundamental fact” very clear. “No football helmet can prevent all concussions,” he says.

In a press release today, NOCSAE urges parents and athletes to “get the facts right about football helmets and concussion protection.” NOCSAE, an independent and non-profit standard-setting body, has developed sophisticated performance and standard tests for football helmets and facemasks, as well as other sports, and is a leader in scientific research to understand concussions and head injury.

Oliver spoke in length with Technology Review yesterday, and said, “any claim that is made with regard to concussions that is not based in fact or science is potentially very damaging.” Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) is asking the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to investigate “misleading safety claims and deceptive practices” in the selling of new football helmets and reconditioned used ones. Oliver says he has talked with Udall and is encouraging the investigation. The difficulty, he explains, is that in the last five to eight years helmet designs have changed but performance has not. “Companies can promote their helmets as being better for reducing concussions, but we know from the test data that all the helmets [on the market] are nearly identical [in performance].”

Oliver adds that while it is fair for the companies to say that the helmet addresses concussions at some level, the problem is scientist don’t know how much they actually need to reduce the accelerations of the head to reduce concussions. “There is a lot about concussions and head injury that researchers don’t fully understand,” said Joseph Maroon, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center and the team neurosurgeon for the Pittsburgh Steelers, in a recent interview with Technology Review.

In the last decade the most significant finding in concussion research, says Oliver, is identifying that head injury is caused not just by linear accelerations, movement of the head back and forth in a straight line, but rotational acceleration, which causes the head to rotate or twist. “The brain is very sensitive to torque, some scientists think this also causes tension between the brain and brain stem,” says Oliver.

The next step is to be able to define thresholds for rotational force. Current NOCSAE helmet safety tests only test for side and front impacts (below, bottom video), and linear accelerations (below, top video).

NOCSAE recently awarded three grants to study concussions: one for a project to better model the brain; another for a study to improve testing protocols; and the last to study rotational acceleration. Also, Riddell, a sports equipment manufacturing, and owner of the HIT technology–a system that employs sensor-equipped helmets to measure the location, magnitude, and direction of hits experienced during a game or practice–is working with researchers and the NFL to build new sensors that can better analyze hits. The NFL plans to use the system to study impacts in the 2011 football season.

Concussions in football is a “complex issue,” says Oliver, and “it won’t be until we can really understand the injury that we can build better helmet technology.” He’s confident that will happen, soon.

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