Football Helmets and Concussion: Equaling the Playing Field

Date: Nov 19, 2021

“Studies have shown that high school football players can accumulate hundreds of hits to the head each season,”

Helmets have come a long way since the earliest days of American football. Leather designs at the start of the 20th century evolved to current day molded plastic models. But, the helmet’s original purpose, protection against head injury, remains the same.

Still, not all modern-day helmets are created equal. While most helmets offer some level of protection against sports-related concussion, less has been known about their ability to protect the brain from sub-concussive hits—head impacts that don’t rise to a concussion diagnosis.

A new “on-field” study, co-authored by Gregory D. Myer, PhD, FACSM, CSCS*D, associate professor of orthopaedics at Emory University School of Medicine and division director at Emory Sports Performance and Research Center, has found that newer helmet designs offer greater protection from the deeper-brain effects of repeated sub-concussive hits.

“Studies have shown that high school football players can accumulate hundreds of hits to the head each season,” says Myer. “Not all of these hits will be diagnosed and treated as a concussion, but they can and do cause unseen damage deep within the brain. It’s important that we understand if their equipment is keeping them safe.”*

Moving from the Lab to the Field

For good reason, most of the known data concerning helmet performance and safety effectiveness comes from simulated tests inside labs. These tests assign helmet performance rankings based on how likely they are to protect against skull fractures and sports-related concussion. Comparing how helmets perform in real-life situations, and whether they can prevent damage or injury to deeper parts of the brain, was the focus of Myer and his team.

The researchers followed more than 100 high school football players: 52 who wore newer, higher-ranking football helmets and 53 who wore older, lower-ranking versions. Higher-ranking models offered newer shell and padding technologies.

Study-enrolled players participated in pre- and post-season evaluations, each undergoing diffusion tensor imaging (DTI). This type of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test offers a look at the brain’s white matter (which is tissue deep within the brain that allows for the transport of information between regions). Concussion and sub-concussive hits can cause alterations to such white matter.

“We found little difference in the rates of sports-related concussion across both helmet groups,” says Myer. “But post-season DTI evaluations did show less damage alterations to white matter among athletes wearing newer, higher-ranking helmet models.”

The study results, the authors say, suggest players would benefit from newer helmet models with impact-reducing technology. Further and larger studies are needed to support these speculations.

Impact Sports Head Injuries

A hit to the head can happen during any sport, but it’s more common in contact sports such as football or soccer. Some hits can cause concussion, a mild type of traumatic brain injury.

Signs of a concussion include:

  • Confusion
  • Difficulty walking, speaking or using your arms
  • Severe headache
  • Vomiting

Seek help immediately if you experience these symptoms.

Athletes with a concussion are typically treated with rest and activity restrictions. But, many hits to the head aren’t diagnosed and treated as concussion. These hits, called sub-concussive hits, can still cause injury to the brain.

Learn more about head injuries, including sports concussion.


Innovation at Emory’s Sports Performance and Research Center

The Sports Performance and Research Center located inside the Emory Orthopaedics & Spine Center at Flowery Branch is a new leading-edge research center, serving both the professional athletes of the Atlanta Falcons as well as community members of all ages. Researchers are focused on injury prevention in young athletes. The team conducts ongoing research and technology development for concussion prevention, sports injury prevention and performance enhancement.

About Emory Orthopaedics & Spine Center

Emory Orthopaedics & Spine Center offers a full range of services to diagnose, treat and repair bones, joints and connective tissue, such as muscles and tendons. Our team puts your health and well-being first. Part of our commitment to patients is making sure you receive the care you need, when you need it.

We have eleven office locations throughout metro Atlanta and beyond. We are the official healthcare team provider for the Atlanta Braves, Atlanta Dream, Atlanta Falcons, Atlanta Hawks, and over 40 collegiate, high school and community sports programs.

Learn More about the Emory Sports Performance & Research Center with Emory Orthopaedics & Spine Center at Flowery Branch or call 404-778-3350.

Schedule your appointment today.

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