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Over Easy: Are football helmets as protective as they look?

During one week at the beginning of the 2014 football season, three high school players, Tom Cutinella, age 16 (NY), Demario Harris, age 17 (AL), and Isaiah Langston, age 17 (NC), died of head injuries sustained while playing football. In an article titled, The Underpublicized High School Football Deaths, Forbes writes, “The game is bigger in our collective conscience than the death of 3 kids in a week playing that very game. Why is that?”

Football fans love to watch “big hits.” In fact, there is a YouTube clip titled, Here comes the boom- Biggest NFL & NCAA HITS – HD – 2014, and another one featuring similar hits for Junior League football. The chants and songs that we have come to love: “Another One Bites the Dust,” and even the ads reflect an American culture that loves this contact sport.

More than any other sport in the United States, American football “has the most concussions, with over 250,000 injuries reported annually in football players, with 20% of high-school football players experiencing a concussion every year.” The Sports Concussion Institute reports more numbers:

-Impact speed of a football player tackling a stationary player: 25mph

-A professional football player will receive an estimated 900 to 1500 blows to the head during a season

-Football is the most common sport with concussion risk for males (75% chance for concussion)

To see how effective football helmets are in preventing concussions, researchers conducted a study, performing 330 tests on crash test dummies, and the results of the study were presented earlier this year at the American Academy of Neurology’s (AAN) 66th Annual Meeting in Philadelphia. The study found that helmets overall are only twenty percent better than no protection at all, in preventing concussions in football players. In a press release titled, “How Well Do Football Helmets Protect Players from Concussions?,” the AAN writes:

The study found that football helmets on average reduced the risk of traumatic brain injury by only 20 percent compared to not wearing a helmet. Of the 10 helmet brands tested, the Adams a2000 provided the best protection against concussion and the Schutt Air Advantage the worst. Overall, the Riddell 360 provided the most protection against closed head injury and the Adams a2000 the least, despite rating the best against concussion.

“Alarmingly, those that offered the least protection are among the most popular on the field,” said Conidi. “Biomechanics researchers have long understood that rotational forces, not linear forces, are responsible for serious brain damage including concussion, brain injury complications and brain bleeds. Yet generations of football and other sports participants have been under the assumption that their brains are protected by their investment in headwear protection.”

After that spring meeting, the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) that mandates safety standards for all helmets worn by young and old held a meeting in the summer to address concussion testing in helmets. Until this year, the (self-governing) regulatory agency has only addressed the issue of helmets preventing fractures. A helmet provides a seventy percent reduction in skull fracture likelihood. However, concussions are a separate issue.

The Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences conducts independent testing on football helmets, giving them star ratings. Indeed, not all helmets are equal. For example, the Adams A2000 Pro Elite helmet, which costs $199.95 is not recommended at all, whereas the Schutt AiR XP Pro VDT, which retails for the same price, is rated among the best currently available, for injury prevention.

Related:
Casualties of the Gridiron
Sports discussion on concussions in the NFL

How football helmets are made

How Well Do Football Helmets Protect Against Concussion and Brain Injury?

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