Building a better helmet
It's been more than four years since Alia Yasen took the "Neurophysiology of Concussion" class at the University of Oregon, but she still recalls something the professor said on the first day: "Just so you know, no helmet's ever going to prevent a concussion."
And that's the common perception among scientists, including Yasen, who is now a neurophysiologist at the university. Helmets - particularly those with new safety designs - can prevent skull injuries like fractures or contusions. But there's little hope that improved technology will entirely prevent concussions, which are brain injuries, not skull injuries.
The brain is not firmly tethered within the skull; it essentially floats in liquid. An impact to the head, say an unsafe tackle, can cause the brain to hit the front of the skull, then the back, repetitively. Although the head as a whole may steady quickly after the collision, the brain continues to move and bruise, an action termed "coup contrecoup."
The traditionally rigid shell of a football helmet does little to reduce this rattling of the brain. But recent improvements in the field, most notably by Seattle startup Vicis, aim to diffuse the impact of a collision and limit the force reaching the head, thus minimizing the brain's rattling. These new helmets still plateau in their ability to completely prevent concussions, though.
Safer helmets cost more
Virginia Tech, a perennial college football powerhouse, has been rating varsity football helmets since 2011. Researchers wanted to quantify the improvement of new designs, like the Vicis Zero1, in comparison to older models. The Zero1 ranked second-best in the university's study, behind Schutt's F7 LTD, according to the STAR evaluation system. The Schutt Q10 and Riddell Speed, helmets commonly used at high schools, ranked much lower.
The Schutt F7 LTD costs $1,200 and the Vicis Zero1 costs $950. Even the cheapest helmets, those that bottom out Virginia Tech's safety list, such as the Schutt Q10, cost at least $200.
Well-funded college athletics programs like the University of Oregon's can afford to purchase the newer, better helmets despite the significant cost increase. According to Bryce Winn, an equipment manager for the UO football team, Ducks can choose from the Vicis Zero1, Schutt F7, Riddell SpeedFlex and more.
High schools in the state can't compete with UO's funding. They rely on booster clubs and fundraising to generate money for uniforms, equipment and helmets.
"We fundraise our butts off at West Linn, to be honest," said Chris Miller, head coach at West Linn High School, south of Portland. "My first year in 2014, I think we raised $84,000. My biggest year in 2016, which was my biggest class, we raised $139,500."
He's well aware that West Linn, with a median household income exceeding $100,000, is one of the wealthiest cities in the state. "We're fortunate, we have the ability to fundraise some pretty affluent folks," Miller said.
Annual inspections required
A cheaper alternative to frequently purchasing new helmets is to recondition them and thereby extend the typical four- to five-year shelf life. Reconditioning involves cleaning, inspecting, repairing and recertifying that equipment. Recertification works with the same drop-testing methods used on new helmets to verify that older helmets still meet benchmarks set by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment.
In line with a statewide requirement to recondition helmets annually, West Linn sends all of its helmets to be reconditioned following every season.
This annual reconditioning, combined with the less forceful collisions of high school football compared to college or the NFL, lengthens a helmet's useful life. But it has its limits. Several companies that recondition helmets won't work with equipment older than 10 years.
Winn, who attended Southridge High School before attending UO, served one season as an equipment manager at the Beaverton high school and said he saw helmets that appeared ready to be removed from circulation.
"I never noticed any denting, but more discoloration, and you could definitely just look at it and be like, 'Hmm, this has definitely been around for four to five years at least,'" Winn said. "I hope they got rid of a lot of those when I left."
A false sense of security?
Even if high schools collect the requisite funds to supply their athletes with newer helmet designs, the safety concerns don't disappear. They shift. A helmet like the Vicis Zero1 diffuses the force of a hit and might provide a false sense of security.
"Sometimes, people say that because you can't feel the hit, you don't know how hard you can push yourself," Winn said of the UO athletes he works with. "A lot of guys say that with their 'precision fits' they don't feel anything when they hit. I feel like they maybe escalate the violence of their hits."
Yasen, the university neurophysiologist, agrees.
"It's almost like those sumo-wrestling joke costumes where you run into each other. You feel like you're not going to get hurt, so you do go all out," she said. "The athletes would need to be trained how to properly use it and tackle."
Additionally, athletes can suffer concussions without the typical head-to-head or head-to-ground contact. An impact to the body can rotate a player's head and cause a rotational concussion.
In a rotational concussion, the brain rotates on the brainstem and similarly collides with the skull. Axons running along the brainstem twist, stretch and deform, potentially causing neurons to eventually die. No helmet accounts for the neck, enabling such concussions to occur. Adding such neck protection would stray from the current helmet aesthetic and limit the neck's rotation, inhibiting standard play.
Although helmets cannot entirely eliminate concussions, coaches and trainers applaud the recent design advancements.
"It will help minimize the kids' exposure for head injuries, which is obviously the most important thing," said Miller about improved helmet technology. "I don't think we've ever been in a better place in youth football or high school football in terms of safety and head safety than we are today."
Nate Mann is a student at the University of Oregon. This article is related to his work at the UO School of Journalism and Communication's Media Center for Science and Technology, which seeks to advance public understanding of scientific discoveries and technological advancements.
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