I have had a lot of parents ask me in recent years about ways to protect their children from suffering concussions. One of their main questions centers around football helmets. Does spending hundreds of dollars on these new helmets with the latest technology make a difference? In my latest newspaper column, I address that question based on the results of a recently published study.
It might not be high school football season yet, but parents across the country will soon prepare 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.
The role of football helmets and concussions
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?
Study on football helmets and football concussions
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 the 2008-2009 through the 2012-2013 seasons.
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.
Do the brand, model and age of the helmet matter?
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. For example, a smaller proportion of athletes who suffered concussions were wearing Schutt helmets (approximately 28%) compared to the overall proportion of players wearing Schutt helmets (about 38%). On the other hand, a larger proportion of players who suffered concussions were wearing Riddell helmets (about 67%) compared to the proportion that were wearing Riddell helmets overall (about 60%).
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 helmet 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.
Would you buy the latest, most advanced football helmet for your child? What other steps would you take to prevent a concussion? Please share your thoughts below!
Note: A modified version of this article appears as my sports medicine column in the March 2, 2016 issue of The Post and Courier.
Collins CL, McKenzie LB, Ferketich AK, Andridge R, Xiang H, Comstock RD. Concussion Characteristics in High School Football by Helmet Age/Recondition Status, Manufacturer, and Model: 2008-2009 Through 2012-2013 Academic Years in the United States. Am J Sports Med. 2016 Feb 23.