Helmets Aren’t the Answer

So says a group of researchers from Wisconsin.  After gathering data on over 1300 football players the overall theme was that there was no correlation between expensive helmets and reduction of concussion incidence.  On first inspection the design of the study looks sound, especially since high school athletic trainers were involved, and the results appeared to be sound according to Timothy McGuine;

“We found the actual incidence of concussion was not more for players wearing the newest helmets versus wearing helmets 3, 4 or 5 years old,” McGuine said. “We also looked at [concussion] severity by helmet model. No difference there, either.”

This finding is absolutely logical based upon today’s helmet technology.  McGuine is correct the exterior shell has achieved its goal to a tune of 99.9999% – prevention of skull fractures – however, the issue of concussions is really something a helmet was/is not designed to combat.

Think about this; the brain rests within fluid inside your skull, the primary protection for our brain, thus allowing our “noodle” to move “freely” for everyday tasks like walking, running, jumping.  In fact, it is an amazing process by which our brain stays stable and protected even though we subject it to crazy forces in everyday life.  Adding a helmet to the mix does nothing for the brain versus movement of the head.  Some people have even suggested that the helmet even can be a contributor to increased motion of the head, due to the increased weight.  What helmets protect are the linear forces and direct trauma that are subjected to the brain bucket.

We have discussed this MANY times before; until we find a way to limit the angular, rotational, acceleration and deceleration forces on the head itself the prevention of concussion is still in the works.

Interestingly, we looked through our database of NFL concussions for the past three years and the helmets identified and found the following;

  • 458 helmets cataloged of 519 concussions found
  • 126 of the helmets were “old” model helmets (Riddell VSR4 and Schutt AiR Advantage)
    • both of those helmets are no longer manufactured and have not been for some time
    • this makes up 27.5% of the concussions the past three years
    • our data shows that this helmet is on less than 14% of the NFL players
    • the rate of concussion in the “old” helmets declined sharply after 2010 – after we published the stark information
  • The remaining 332 ID’ed helmets of concussions were spread over 10 different types of helmets
    • our data shows no overall correlation to concussion incidence (falling in line with the above article)
    • there is a disproportionate amount of concussions in helmets preferred by DB’s

What the we are trying to say is that these researchers in Wisconsin may very well be correct in their summation, the technology is about tapped out on helmets as it relates to concussions.  In our opinion it is obvious that the new helmets of today have provided better protection than those of the past.

Although the helmets grabbed the headline, the research also pointed to something that we have also been very proactive about; mouth guards.

This study also found that custom mouth gear – aimed at “concussion prevention” – was more likely to be used in cases of concussion.  The standard boil and bite variety of mouth gear had less incidence of concussion;

The study also found that players who wore a specialized or custom-fitted mouth guard actually had a higher risk of concussion than players who wore a generic mouth guard provided by their school.

“Should parents pay $30 for a mouth guard to protect their son against concussion, or just use the $1 mouth guard the school provides?” McGuine asked.

In my mind the reason for this interesting side note of the study is simple; players who don equipment that they feel will protect them from concussion will only increase their risky behavior.

It is very important for people to understand that there is no piece of equipment out there currently that can prevent or even attenuate concussions in sport.  The best way to protect one from concussion is to limit exposure and avoid situations where concussions can become likely.

Play safe out there, be smart!

9 thoughts on “Helmets Aren’t the Answer

  1. joe bloggs July 17, 2013 / 08:35

    Thankfully, a bit of real research in a sea of self-promoted crap. Joe Torg’s presentation is confirmed. Fit and maintenance are the important factors. Hopefully, legislation will shift to stop the mindless promotion of new helmets as a solution. Mouth guards are what they are designed to do and nothing more.

    The Va Tech Star System has been brought down.

    Dustin hit the nail on the head as moral hazard is a real issue.

    Hopefully, this year will be marked by more useful research that will promote common sense in the face of manufactured drivel. Get an ATC, make sure the equipment is well fit and in good condition, and get coaches who are not stuck in the stone age. Much of the problem will go away.

  2. Eric Nussbaum July 17, 2013 / 08:55

    Though I understand the findings of this study, they are in conflict with what I have seen at my HS. I have seen a higher incidence of concussion in our younger population (Sub-varsity) and it is this population who traditionally receive the older helmets. Of course some of this may be age/development/technique related, but we did see a significant decrease in our number of concussions this past season when we ordered 50 brand new helmets for our program. Im not naive to say that other factors may have also impacted this result. Obviously, one year by no means answers a question, but it does make you think about the possible impact. We know that the helmet was not designed to prevent a concussion, but over the years there have been some advances in design, interior padding and shape. The shell may function similarly year after year, but the inside of the helmet, the padding, the air bladders are subject to extremes of temperature, sweat, oils, wear and tear. Though reconditioning does replace some of this wear, it is still questionable whether a helmet that receives 600-1000 blows over the course of the season and is 5-6 years old, still functions as well as a brand new helmet. The Wisconsin study is a good step in the right direction in gathering information on helmet performance, but I think further study and review needs to continue.

    • Dustin Fink July 17, 2013 / 12:41


      I too have seen the stark drops with new helmets at times, but I have also seen them increase after new helmets… Joe put it well as did the article its all about the fit… Newer helmets tend to fit better if its just put on and go… I really liked this study and makes sense in a logical sense…

  3. Jake Benford July 17, 2013 / 10:45

    Well put Joe.

  4. Michael Hopper July 17, 2013 / 21:00

    I was just at a conference today where DJ Maclean from Schutt Sports talked about helmet and shoulder pad fitting. While we are going away from the Schutt helmets at my school (majority of what we wear are in the Riddell Revolution family) I was impressed with their quarter-turn facemask removal system. I think that really all these companies make good helmets whether it is Schutt, Riddell, or Xenith. You have to find what you like.

    I have had this conversation with two different head coaches and actually had the same conversation the other day with my boss. I don’t care what helmets our kids wear. I think one of the “new era” helmets is fine. I want to see the two models mentioned above that are discontinued to be eliminated and move to the newer helmets. Beyond that, there’s only a couple things that matter to me after fitting. 1) Can a coach maintain the helmet? Does he have the parts to do it? Does he have the knowledge to do it? 2) Can the medical staff (me as AT, etc) manipulate the face mask in an emergency?

    Beyond that, it doesn’t seem there is much major difference in brand…

  5. Scott L. Bruce July 23, 2013 / 08:26

    Although research has demonstrated the purpose of a helmet is not to prevent a concussion, but rather to prevent serious head trauma, I believe an ill-fitting helmet can pre-dispose an athlete to a concussion. If the NFL would do something about the Sam Bradford types (able to slip a full hand between the jaw pad and the cheek on both sides of helmet) and Ray Lewis types (able to put his helmet on and take it off with one hand) of the football world then the colleges and especially the high schools would have fewer problems with those athletes thinking that the helmet that fits like a vice (Peyton Manning) is not how a helmet should fit! The helmet fits tight for a purpose and not having a properly fitted helmet is not the way to do it!

  6. Josh Plisko July 24, 2013 / 06:46

    In reviewing this article I have a concern pertaining to the boil vs custom mouth gaurd. Is it logical to assume players that are wearing custom mouth guards are playing more, more serious about training, and overall physically more involved in potential concussion blows? If a player does not play significantly why would he or she be paying for a custom mouth gaurd? I can see that the results maybe a little swayed if this was a study that reviewed concussion incidents and not a simulation or direct experiment with force measurements. Thoughts? Thanks for you posts and keeping insividuals updated on this important sports topic.

    • Dustin Fink July 24, 2013 / 07:40


      Thanks for the comment and questions… As for “logical to assume players are wearing custom mouth guards are playing more…”, I would disagree with this line of thinking. It has been my experience that there is no correlation between custom MG and more play. In fact, I would say it may even be the opposite when it comes to football.

      This is why this information stands out to me; there are far fewer players that have custom mouth appliances, yet there are more concussions found in this research. And with my experience that would also mean lower exposure (more boil and bites on the “better” players) yet more concussions…

      I would also like to add that players seem to trend to these sort of products after they have sustained a previous concussion. This makes the problem even greater in my opinion.

      I think it speaks to the risky behavior associated with such products.

      Be safe!

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