Football helmets: Increased cost does not equal better protection

April 19, 2016 Providence Health Team

Football helmets that cost more and receive higher safety ratings don’t appear to offer better protection against sports injuries, suggests a recent study from the Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Colorado, Anschutz Medical Campus.

The research also indicated no real performance difference between new models and older, reconditioned helmets, as long as the reconditioning was done in a timely manner.

"All of the approved helmets evaluated in our study performed similarly. Increased costs does not necessarily translate to improved safety," said Dawn Comstock, Ph.D., senior author of the study and associate professor of epidemiology.

First study testing helmets on the field

In previous high school football helmet studies, researchers conducted impact testing in a laboratory setting. However, between 2008 and 2013, Comstock and her team collected football concussion and helmet data from the playing fields of participating schools. Their reports showed 2,900 football concussions per 3,528,790 athletic exposures (AE) – a unit for measuring the susceptibility of injury – or 8.2 concussions per 10,000 AEs.

When comparing concussions sustained by young athletes wearing different helmets, the researchers looked at:

  • Number of concussion symptoms
  • Symptom resolution time
  • Time until the injured athlete was released to return to play

Their findings suggest that the most common make and model of helmets all performed similarly. They also found that helmets reconditioned within 12 months prior to use had similar results as new helmets. The only difference the researchers found was in players using older helmets that had not been recently reconditioned. Those players suffered concussion symptoms for a longer period of time.

Manufacturer's data misleading?

The helmets that scored higher ratings, based on laboratory testing, did not seem to offer increased protection on the field. "We found helmets with high ratings performed similarly to helmets with lower ratings," said Comstock. "At the same time, the most expensive helmet did not appear to provide significantly increased protection compared to less expensive helmets."

Another consistent finding by the researchers: All helmets provided similar protection when they featured the seal of the NOCSAE, or National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment. The National Federation of State High School Associations requires the seal for high school football.

What parents can do

Before your child starts a new athletic season, talk to coaches and administrators about the sports equipment that will be used. Ask if the helmets have been reconditioned. If so, when? Find out if the school is aware of a manufacturer's reconditioning guidelines.

Also make sure you understand the signs of a concussion. Most youth and high school athletic teams must have a physician on the sidelines for games and practices. But it's always good to know the signs of concussion in the event your child sustains a head injury during a game.

Call 911 or seek immediate medical attention if you notice any of the following:

  • Loss of consciousness
  • Vomiting
  • Slurred speech
  • One-sided weakness
  • Unequal dilation of eyes
  • Extreme confusion
  • Seizures
  • Severe or increasing head or neck pain
  • Problems breathing
  • Bleeding or discharge from ears or nose

Consult your pediatrician or family physician if your child experiences any of the following:

  • Seeing stars
  • Dizziness
  • Mild amnesia
  • Sensitivity to light or noise
  • Depression, anger
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Headache
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Problems with smell or taste

If you have questions about football or other sports activities for your child, talk to your pediatrician or family physician. You can find a Providence provider near you.

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