There’s more to the developing story of American football, concussion and the large helmets players wear which surprisingly do prevent concussive injuries but still need to be developed further. Ann McKee, MD is Professor of Neurology & Pathology, Director, Neuropathology Core at U.Wisconsin. McKee says her data on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) suggests the duration of exposure to repetitive head trauma—concussion-inducing blows as well as smaller, “subconcussive” hits —is correlating with the severity of the disease. Imperative, she says, are studies that use accelerometers to track the head impacts that individuals sustain, cumulatively, throughout their lives. Ideally, such studies would also track things like nutrition, neuropsychological performance, and other measures of health, she says, and scientists could eventually use that data to tease out important relationships. McKee however is not a helmet engineer or tester and that’s where the future of concussion protection is. She sees dead brains. We need better helmets right now.

McKee’s info is all after the fact which means it may take decades to clear up the debate over how and why CTE arises in some players and what that means for the game, which must be made safer.

There are ways to do that right now. Changing from plastic to Carbon fiber and Kevlar® shells that are lighter and much stronger. Using for example, NASA-licensed foam that absorbs impact instead of redirecting it; using lighter chrome-moly tubing face masks that balance the helmet and makes movements easy. Cutting the weight in half from 5 pounds to 2 1/2 pounds improves both athletic speed and protection. Change the one-size-fits-all to multiple sizes improves the response of the helmet and lowers the injury rate. New technology can do what the doctors can’t do, help solve the concussion problems.

Riddell, Schutt and other companies make helmets. They would be delighted to make a safer helmet. They need more research and more info. Acceleration sensors inside the helmets can do that.

The HIT System uses multiple sensors inside helmets, which alerts sideline staff to the number of hits — and potentially serious hits — a player takes. A study conducted by Duma and others, published by the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine in January 2005, showed the merits of detecting acceleration traces, in addition to just a number of hits and severity of impact.

Virginia Tech has used the HIT System for 11 years, and Brown, Dartmouth, North Carolina, and Oklahoma also use it. But it isn’t more widespread due to costs, which are around $50,000 to $60,000, according to a January report by al.com’s Jon Solomon.

Improvements in helmet design that sharply lower the de-celleration of the head will stop concussions. Training the players to avoid helmet contact is another field that needs study and improvement. The NFL moved to stop the Helmet-to-Helmet contact in 2014 but the game is so spontaneous and players operate with high intensity that no amount of training can avoid 100% of the hits.
So more is being done while more needs to be done. The good news is player safety is ongoing. Eventually that means fewer concussions and perhaps zero, at least as a goal.
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