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Feb 10, 2013

What are Helmets Doing to Reduce the Risk of Concussions?

Name of helmet source changed to protect interests involved

EAST LANSING, MICH - Football and concussions have become interlinked with each other to the point that one cannot be talked about without the other. With increased testing, makers of football helmets have taken it upon themselves to help reduce concussions caused during the game.

The rise of brain injuries, especially concussions, in sports has been linked to mental problems for athletes later in life. Deaths of athletes such as Junior Seau and Chris Henry have elevated the risks associated with concussions to near epidemic levels and every level of sport from Pop Warner to the National Football League are taking concussions seriously.

Henry, who was a receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals, died when he fell off a truck in 2009. He had his brain examined after his death and the findings were alarming. It was determined that Henry, 26, had a brain that could have belonged to a man in his seventies and showed that Henry had developed chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

This brain disease has been found, not only in Henry, but in the brains of multiple other retired NFL players, which has had to the NFL placing increased importance on the reduction of concussions and other brain trauma to their players.

Inside the testing process

Each year, researchers at Virginia Tech University and Wake Forest University work together to test the latest helmets on their ability to sustain impacts and reduce concussions. In 2011, there was only one helmet that received a five-star rating from the Virginia Tech study, it was the Riddell Revo Speed helmet. The 2012 tests saw two more helmets added to the five-star rating, the new Riddell 360 and Rawlings Quantum Plus.
Riddell Sports is one of the leading makers of helmets, being named the official helmet of the National Football League, and has created two helmets that have been named some of the safest available. Both the Revo Speed and the new 360 helmets received a Summation of Tests for the Analysis of Risk, or STAR, rating of less than .30, making them the best helmets available to keep athletes safe.

The full results of the helmets tested in the Virginia Tech Helmet survey can be found here. In these tests the Riddell 360, Riddell Revo Speed and Rawlings Quantum Plus scored the highest.

Testing at Virginia Tech puts each helmet through its rigors. To test a helmet, the researchers take three of the same type of helmet and subject each to 120 impacts and measure how it performs in each unique impact. Impacts are located on the top, side, front and rear of the helmet in addition to drop tests where the helmet is dropped from various heights.

The best performing helmet in the latest Virginia Tech study was the Riddell 360. The 360 was released in 2012 by Riddell and has quickly become a favorite with football teams from high school to college and even the NFL. It was announced prior to the beginning of the 2012 season that the entire University of Iowa football team would wear the 360 helmet because of its safety rating.

“A lot of stock is placed in the Virginia Tech tests, any information that can be gathered is good,” said Eric Thompson, a helmet salesman. “Riddell is the only manufacturer that independently tests their helmets for side impacts, something that is not required when making a helmet.”

What makes the Riddell 360 so different?

What makes the 360 score almost 60 points better than the other Riddell helmet in the Virginia Tech study? There is a lot that goes into one of these helmets, much of which goes unseen by anyone outside of the player and the trainer.

The difference that most people will notice about the 360 is the more pronounced vents along the crown of the helmet, which Riddell says help to keep the player cooler during games.

There is more to the vents than just cooling the athlete says Thompson.

“With the vents it creates more curves on the helmet, and with more curves there is less flat space on the helmet where force can be more easily transferred to the skull,” Thompson said.

Additionally, the new shape to the rear of the helmet is more than cosmetic, it serves to cradle the back of the head and help to reduce whiplash after sustaining an impact to the front of the helmet.

“The facemask on Riddell helmets is unique,” Thompson said. “It actually flexes with the impact to help try to disperse the energy outward and not into the player’s skull.”

One of the most unique features of the Riddell 360 helmet is the padding. Immediately noticeable is the energy managing foam that is fitted to the player’s head and helps to cushion any impact the helmet sustains. The interior of the helmet is actually independent of the outer shell, separated by an inflatable membrane that extends to the jaw line, that when inflated serves to stop the wearer’s head from moving within the helmet during an impact.

“The inflatable portion of the helmets help to anchor them to the player’s head and prevent the head from rotating after an impact,” Thompson said. “The offset between the shell and the skull is important in the helmet because the more space there is, the less the concussion risk is.”

Impact on high schools

Each year, the Virginia Tech Helmet Ratings researchers test 15 different helmets; in 2012 10 of the helmets tested received a four or five star rating. Any helmet that receives a four star or higher rating is recommended by Virginia Tech and anything lower is discouraged. Of the 15 helmets tested, three finished with a two-star or lower rating, and all three of those helmets have been removed from the market.

With the Riddell 360 costing $374.95 there could be issues with smaller colleges or youth programs that are not able to afford the type of helmets that would keep their participants the safest, but Thompson says that while it may be a lot of money, ultimately it is worth it.

The cost is something that several Lansing-area athletic trainers have expressed concern over, notably Lansing Waverly athletic trainer Rich Kieft. Kieft expressed that while newer helmets would be nice, his school cannot afford them and went on to say that even the best helmet couldn’t stop a concussion.

“We’re using six year old helmets out here,” Kieft said. “We try to get new helmets in as often as we can, but that’s not always possible. Honestly, a helmet won’t do anything for you, these kids need to learn not to lead into a tackle with the top of their head.”

The Michigan High School Athletic Association also places weight on reducing concussions, but shares Kieft’s opinion that helmets cannot fully stop all concussions from happening. In the announcements that the MHSAA has announcers read during football games the importance of concussions is evident.

“If you get your bell rung during a game, you’ve probably sustained a concussion,” the script reads. “While well-fitted equipment is important; helmets and other headgear only prevent cracked heads and mouth guards only prevent cracked teeth.”

Concussions and the brain damage that they cause have become important and interlinked with football, the importance of the improvement of helmet technology has never been more important. With varying opinions on how to prevent future concussions, the only thing that can help protect athletes in any situation is a safer helmet.

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