Friday, January 31, 2014

New helmets could slash concussion risks, says study

I’m all for using technology to make gains in important medical issues. Football players and concussions is one of the most talked about issues in sports media. A new study suggests that technology in the development of new football helmets may significantly reduce the occurrence of concussions among college football players.

From NBC News:

The players in the study wore one of two helmet models made by the Riddell company: the older VSR4 and the newer Revolution. All the helmets had been equipped with sensors that recorded forces, or accelerations, experienced by the players’ heads each time there was a hit.

“No helmet can completely prevent concussions,” said study co-author Stefan Duma, a professor and head of biomedical engineering at Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University. “There’s always a risk. All we are saying is that by effectively adding more padding, it reduces the accelerations, and that reduces concussions.”

Duma and his colleagues scrutinized concussion and accelerometer data collected from 2005 to 2010 from eight college football teams. All the players wore either the Riddell VSR4 or the Riddell Revolution.

The study was conducted by Stefan Duma, professor and biomedical engineer at Virginia Tech. Duma’s team collected data for six seasons and used eight college football teams. All of the study subjects used Riddell helmets. One group used the Riddell VSR4, while the other used Riddell Revolution helmets.

However, the story also notes that other studies have shown that there is little, if any, difference in concussion incidence related to the selection of helmet design.

The Duma study is an important data point, but it also raises an important issue that goes unaddressed in the NBC News piece. That point: Advances in both technology and technique have made the game of football more uhh… “impactful.” Recent rules changes have sought to reduce the number of violent collisions on the football field. Will better helmet technology decrease the number of concussions, or will that technology lead to even more violent impacts on the field, thereby erasing any gains made?

The rules changes we’ve seen—as well as the media coverage on head injuries and long term consequences—threaten the way the game is played as we know it. Football has always been an impact sport, not a contact sport like basketball or soccer.

The more we seem to armor the warriors, the more the warriors seem to defeat the armor of their opponents. It’s very much like the old warhead vs. armor competition on the battlefield. Sooner or later, the better warhead will defeat the greater armor.

Maybe we should just go back to leather helmets, minimal padding and no facemasks. Maybe we should let the game be contested by teams with the best players rather than the best equipment. That’s an extreme position, but I am unconvinced that rules changes regarding contact and advances in helmet technology will significantly reduce the kind of chronic and tragic brain injuries that plague so many of the guys we cheer for on Saturdays and Sundays.

Friday nights, too.