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Controversial Science: Football Helmets And Concussions

This article is more than 8 years old.

Concern over concussions suffered by football players has led to the development of new helmets which, according to some researchers, can diminish the dangers. As Patrick Hruby wrote for Washingtonian Magazine, those researchers may be wrong.

Hruby joined Bill Littlefield to explain.

BL: Stefan Duma is the researcher at Virginia Tech who has led the study designed to determine whether better helmets can cut the risk of concussions. Tell me about how he and his colleagues have gone about trying to figure that out.

The more you dig into this stuff, the more you realize that these scientists — who are all really well-intentioned — there’s just a lot they don’t know.

Patrick Hruby, reporter

PH: First they started out with sensored helmets on the Virginia Tech football team. And then there were sensored helmets on other college football teams as well. What they were doing was they were recording basically the force and impact of hits and tackles, contact on the field and in practice — and then they were trying to correlate that with actual, recorded concussions.

Then in the laboratory they're taking crash-test dummy heads, essentially, they're putting helmets on them and they're sort of trying to recreate those types of hits.

BL: Duma and his colleagues award five stars to those helmets that offer the greatest protection — at least according to their tests. How have manufacturers responded to the so-called STAR rating system?

PH: When the STAR [Summation of Tests for the Analysis of Risk] ratings first came out in 2011, the manufacturers — they were a little cold on them, I would say. A couple of them were actually pretty critical. But, a couple years later, what you see is that more and more of these helmets are getting higher and higher STAR ratings.

The helmet makers are essentially designing their helmets to get good STAR ratings. You know, consumers, quite rightfully — parents, players — if someone is telling them, "Hey, science shows this is a safer helmet," who isn't going to want to buy that? But as I get to in my story, it's not that simple.

BL: Well, that's the part I want to get to. Don Comrie runs a company that helps drug firms design clinical trials and he has characterized Dr. Duma’s research as “garbage in, garbage out.” Why?

PH: He's pointing out that there's no way that these concussion numbers that they are recording are even close to what's happening on the field. I talked to Comrie, and one of the examples he gave was, let's say the concussions they are recording are the most obvious ones — the huge knockout blows; the ones that no player can hide, no trainer can miss, no coach can overlook.

[sidebar title="The Science Of Helmets" width="630" align="right"]Karen Given met with Dr. Bill Meehan to better understand the science behind concussions and why it's so difficult to build a helmet that prevents them.[/sidebar]Well, if you tend to be picking up those kind of things then maybe in your formulas, the math formulas that you're creating, you're basically biasing it towards, "OK, only these certain types of really high-velocity, straight-on hits are the problems here. Let's design our helmet accordingly."

But what if concussions are also happening with lower-velocity hits? What if you're missing those? You might be coming up with helmets that aren't actually reducing risk whatsoever.

BL: One obvious problem with the STAR rating system would seem to be that it does not take into account what’s called “rotational acceleration,” that is, hits that cause the brain to rotate in the skull. Has Duma responded to that criticism?

PH: Yeah, this is not just [true] of STAR, but right now of every safety rating we have for football helmets. Right now none of these systems account for that rotational acceleration. All hits basically produce both: linear and rotational acceleration. A lot of scientists think that rotational may actually be more connected to brain damage.

[sidebar title="MLB Rule 7.13 Targets Concussions" width="630" align="right"] A look at baseball's crash course on eliminating home-plate collisions.[/sidebar]The brain is kind of like a blob of Jell-O or Silly Putty and when it gets that rotational twist, there actually can be more damage. Duma is definitely aware of that. They're going to try to incorporate rotational acceleration into their STAR ratings going forward. Other researchers are working on that as well.

What I learned in this story is that the more you dig into this stuff, the more you realize that these scientists — who are all really well-intentioned — there's just a lot they don't know. My takeaway as a reporter was that this is a good idea, but it may not be as far along as parents, helmet makers, TV stations — all of us — think it is.


This segment aired on December 6, 2014.


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