Better Mousetrap? No. Better Helmet? Yes.

Football helmets go high-tech to conquer concussions

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

"There are many things you can point to as proof that the human is not smart. But my personal favorite would have to be that we needed to invent the helmet. What was happening, apparently, was that we were involved in a lot of activities that were cracking our heads. We chose not to avoid doing those activities but, instead, to come up with some sort of device to help us enjoy our head-cracking lifestyles.”

-Jerry Seinfeld

This season the National Football League has had over 175 million people tune in to watch it's games and can also lay claim to having the 14 most watched television programs in the country since the season started on September 9, 2010...both are records.

It's apparent that the American public definitely enjoys it's head-cracking.

This is in spite of the recent and rapidly growing concerns over the short and long term effects of concussions and head injuries. The NFL has responded by making unprecedented mid-season rule changes regarding helmet-to-helmet hits, by levying fines and possible suspensions to players who have been fouond to have made careless hits on defenseless players. Still, even the steepest of fines aren't going to remove the concussion risk because even the cleanest, most legal plays can result in head injury. The next step has been to turn attention on how to make the helmets safer.

Helmet manufacturer Riddell was ahead of the curve in terms of realizing that concussions might be able to be prevented or reduced in severity by improving helmet design. In 2002, the company introduced the Revolution helmet, which took data from biomechanical testing to redesign the shape of the helmet around the head's center of gravity. The efforts were a success, when an article published in the journal Neurosurgery found that players who wore the Revolution helmet were 31% less likely to suffer a concussion than those who wore traditional helmets. It was a commercial success as well, with over 300,000 football players of all ages wearing the helmet.

More recently, former Harvard quarterback Vincent Ferrara, MD, started a company called Xenith with the intent of further improving helmet safety. The Xenith helmet was designed with the intent of adapting to the force of the blow by using thermoplastic shock absorbers that respond accordingly to the force that's placed on them by venting the air inside them. Dr. Ferrara states "The idea is that we have something that is more intelligent and responds uniquely to what is happening to it...You want a system to behave softly under low energy, but under high energy, you want it to get progressively stiffer so that it does not collapse down to nothing."

The design is based on a newer understanding of concussions, where injury is believed to occur from shearing forces that come from violent movement, as opposed to the traditional 'bruise to the brain' that comes from the brain striking the inside of the skull. The padding in the Xenith helmet works like an airbag, to slow down violent movement as much as possible. Dr. Ferrara says “The key is the adaptive response…a more optimized compression so that the head moves more gradually upon impact, and the brain should move less inside the skull."

The Xenith was introduced in 2009, so large scale independent studies of it's effectiveness aren't yet available, but the company has done some of it's own research. Shortly after the helmet's introduction, they looked at 534 players in seven different high schools who wore the helmet over a full season. Only 20 concussions were diagnosed, for a rate of 3.75%, significantly lower than rates reported in medical literature of 10% to 25%, as well as a 60% relative risk reduction. Anecdotal evidence is positive as well. Pro-Bowl center for the Baltimore Ravens Matt Birk stated “I’ve been really happy with the Xenith. On the football field, you get what’s called a ding—you might feel a little foggy after a hit. I haven’t had any of these with the new helmet. Normally, I would expect it by now, and probably more than once.”

And the Revolution and Xenith aren't the end of the road either. It was recently announced that computer chip giant Intel would be using their massive computing power to join in the fight to reduce concussions. Intel is partnering with Riddell and researchers from the Thayer School of Engineering (Dartmouth), Wayne State University, University of Northern Colorado and Texas State University-San Marcos to create simulations of helmet collisions and analyze the data. The hope is that eventually, sensors in the player's helmet would be able to send immediate information about the hit, and help to diagnose if a concussion or head injury is likely to have occurred.

With all the advances in helmet technology, the incidence and severity of concussions have been reduced. But the reality is that there is no such thing as a perfect helmet, and the NFL acknowledged as much. Ray Anderson, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations said, "I don't know if (manufacturers) could ever convince us or assure us that a helmet that would absolutely prevent concussions is doable. I haven't heard such a thing." Thad Ide, vice president of research and development at Riddell agreed. "It's important to understand that there's a limit to how much helmets can do," Ide said. "And player behavior, player education, rules changes — all of those things can have as much, or more, of a benefit in reducing the risk of concussion."

“Football is a collision sport. When it's played well, it's a violent collision sport. Concussions will happen," said D.J. MacLean, helmet manufacturer Schutt's director of sports marketing. "The only way to not get one is to sit in the stands."

Review Date: 
November 19, 2010