By Dev K. Mishra, M.D.
President, Sideline Sports Doc
Can helmet design reduce the risk of concussion in football? Short answer: yes. Dr. Steven Rowson and colleagues recently published a study in the Journal of Neurosurgery to evaluate concussion risk and concussion rates using two different helmet designs. This study, along with others, shows that improvements in helmet design can reduce concussion risk as compared against each other.
The researchers placed accelerometers inside commercially available football helmets to measure various types of impact and rotational movements. Nearly 2000 players at 8 Division 1 NCAA football programs participated, and data was collected from 2005 through 2010. Two types of Riddell football helmets were tested: the VSR4 and the Revolution. The data showed that players wearing the VSR4 helmet sustained 8.37 concussions per 100,000 head impacts, and players wearing the Revolution helmet sustained 3.86 concussions per 100,000 head impacts. In other words the players wearing the Revolution helmets had a 53.9% reduced concussion risk compared to players wearing the VSR4 helmet. That’s a huge improvement.
Some limitations of the study
With respect to the youth and high school football player I would caution against taking the concussion numbers literally. We know conclusively that concussion rates are different in high school or youth football as compared to college players. The young brain responds differently to impact, and certainly the nature of the impact is drastically different in Div 1 college players. Additionally, the VSR4 helmet is an older model and not sold by Riddell today. Finally, I would have liked the authors to at least comment on the key differences in the design of the two helmets that they feel contributed to the reduced concussion risk with the Revolution helmet.
Take-Home Message: modern helmet design can reduce concussion injury risk
As I look at the design of the two helmets it appears to me that there are two key differences that could account for the reduced injury rate. First, the latest Revolution helmet foam liner is 40% thicker than the VSR4. Intuitively I would think that dissipates impact forces better than a thinner liner. Second, the offset portion of the helmet extends far forward on the chin in the Revolution compared to the VSR4. I am not an engineer but it seems to me that this would change the point of force in front impacts and could further reduce brain impact. Taking this idea even further, the newest model from Riddell called the 360 has removed the screws from the front forehead portion of the helmet, essentially creating a crumple zone with the facemask similar to a car’s front bumper. This should go one step further to reduce concussion risk from front impact. I have not seen published data to support that statement, it’s just my opinion.
Helmet Design Innovation Will Continue
I think we will see several innovations in the next few years designed to have the helmet absorb more of the impact forces and reduce force transmitted to the brain. Helmets from several manufacturers have design characteristics that can make a positive difference in reducing concussion rates. When combined with new rules on tackling and improved tackling technique I would expect that we will start seeing reduced concussion rates in our young players.