The topic of sports-related concussions, especially from football, remains front and center among health professionals and any player or parent who cares about his brain function. Equipment manufacturers have jumped aboard the protect-your-head bandwagon, but, as a recent story on USNews.com makes clear, helmet product claims of reducing the risk of injury aren’t borne out by the facts.
Summarizing research presented at a meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics last month, USNews reported that “… neither the brand nor the age of a helmet is associated with fewer concussions in young athletes, …”
During the 2012 football season, researchers tested a variety of mouth guards and football helmets worn by 1,332 high school football players from 36 different schools. The players had completed a pre-season questionnaire about previous injuries. The athletic trainers reported the number and severity of sports-related concussions throughout the season.
At season's end, no significant difference was found in the frequency of concussions among players, regardless of the brand or age of their helmets. And the severity of the concussions, as measured by the number of days players were absent from play, was no different among players wearing different brands. Among the brands tested were Riddell, Schutt and Xenith.
Many helmets promoted for reducing the risk of concussion are more expensive, so the researchers questioned the wisdom of investing in such equipment.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 173,000 recreation-related traumatic brain injuries to children and adolescents are treated in U.S. emergency departments in the United States every year. Boys between 10 and 19 who play football are far more likely to suffer such injuries. Nearly 3 in 4 ER visits for brain trauma are among males, and most often involve football or bicycling. The recent research showed that about 40,000 sports-related concussions occur in U.S. high schools every year.
Although helmets reduce the risk of skull fractures and scalp injuries, the researchers doubt that they’ll ever be able to protect athletes completely from concussions and brain injuries. That’s not likely, as the chief researcher told USNews, "because the brain is floating freely inside the skull, I think most experts doubt whether it is possible to ever develop a helmet design that can prevent concussion."
Gregory Myer, director of research for the Division of Sports Medicine at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, said it's difficult to protect the brain from the outside, especially when you add mass to an athlete's head with a helmet.
"That's why we've seen no reduction in the number of concussions from the development of any helmet," he told USNews.
You can prevent the incidence and severity of concussions by increasing peripheral vision to enable a player to avoid or prepare for a collision, and by improving neck strength. But Myer said it's possible that helmets could increase the risk of concussions.
That comes from a sense of invincibility—some players might be less fearful if they’re wearing a helmet they believe has protective powers that it doesn’t.
"They're more likely to use their head as a weapon," Myers told USNews. "If you took that away, athletes would never lead with their head."
Learn more about concussions on HealthyChildren.org, an informational website of the American Academy of Pediatrics.