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Football Helmets Don't Prevent Some Concussion-Causing Impacts, Study Says

On average, football helmets only reduce the risk of traumatic brain injury by 20 percent compared to not wearing a helmet at all, according to a new study released on Monday.

The study, which will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology's annual meeting in late April, sought to determine how well football helmets protected athletes against traumatic brain injury.

Currently, the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment only requires helmet effectiveness to be measured through a linear drop-test. Helmets must be able to withstand a 60-inch free fall without allowing too much force to reach the skull (essentially, it's a test to prevent fractured skulls), according to The New York Times.

For this study, researchers "devised a reasonable modification" to the standard helmet-drop-test system, which measured both linear (straight ahead) and rotational (to the side) responses to 12-mile-per-hour impacts, to test the effectiveness of 10 different helmet designs.

The football helmets they tested—the Adams a2000, the Rawlings Quantum, the Riddell 360, the Riddell Revolution, the Riddell Revolution Speed, the Riddell VSR4, the Schutt Air Advantage, the Schutt DNA Pro+, the Xenith X1, and the Xenith X2—reduced the risk of skull fracture by 60 to 70 percent and reduced the risk of local brain contusion by 70 to 80 percent. However, the helmets did little to protect against rotational impacts, only reducing the risk of concussion by 20 percent.

"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," said study co-author Dr. Frank Conidi, the director of the Florida Center for Headache and Sports Neurology, in a statement. "Yet generations of football and other sports participants have been under the assumption that their brains are protected by their investment in headwear protection."

Conidi and his fellow co-author noted that protection against concussion is "especially important for young players, including peewee, high school and college participants, whose still-developing brains are more susceptible to the lasting effects of trauma."

Why doesn't NOCSAE already require helmets to be tested against rotational forces? Two bills introduced in Congress back in 2011, known as the Children's Sports Athletic Equipment Safety Act, sought to address that very question.

The bills would have required the industry to improve the safety standards of football helmets within nine months of passage. If NOCSAE failed to make substantial changes, the Consumer Product Safety Commission would have been tasked with developing safety regulations for football helmets.

In response, NOCSAE hired a lobbying firm for the first time in its 40-year history. Neither the House nor Senate version of the bill made it past committee.

At an Oct. 2011 Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing, Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., put helmet makers on blast, suggesting that some were engaging in misleading advertising regarding their products' ability to protect against concussions.

"Now that athletes, coaches and parents have a better understanding of concussions, some sports equipment makers appear to be a taking advantage," said Udall, according to the Associated Press. "There are a number of so-called, quote, anti-concussion and concussion-reducing devices on the market. ... We need to make sure advertisers play by the rules."

Last April, the family of an injured Colorado student-athlete won a $3.1 million judgment against Riddell, the country's largest football helmet maker, for the company's failure to adequately warn about the dangers of concussions.

What's the main takeaway from this new study? As coaches should already be stressing to their young players, wearing a football helmet doesn't make one invincible against the risk of concussions. Players leading with their head are asking for trouble, helmet or not.

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