Football Helmets Offer Little Protection from Concussions

Helmets provide some protection for young athletes, making parents feel a bit better about their children taking up a full-contact sport.

But football helmets only reduce the risk of traumatic brain injury by  20 percent, compared to not wearing a helmet, according to preliminary results of a new study to be presented in late April at the American Academy of Neurology’s annual meeting.

The study finds that blows caused by “rotational force” aren’t warded off much by helmets. Rotational injury occurs when the head rotates on the neck because of the impact.  These types of blows usually result in concussion, which happens when the brain bounces and twists around inside the skull.

The study’s findings have refocused the public debate over the prevalence of concussions, especially among young athletes.

“Football helmets are supposedly better at absorbing  G forces, but manufacturers of the protective gear have not figured out a way of combating rotational force,” said Richard Hamilton, Ph.D., clinical director of Brain Injury and Concussion Rehabilitation Programs at Baptist Hospital. “Most concussions are more likely the result of a rotational force rather than linear impact. An injury from a linear hit is associated with an easier recovery period.”

Protection against concussion and from complications of brain injury is especially important for younger players, ages 9 through 11, who weigh between 70 and 115 pounds and play on Pee Wee football teams.

“From a developmental point of view for young athletes, the brain is still growing and more vulnerable to injury, and concussion symptoms can take longer to resolve,” Dr. Hamilton said. “These younger kids in Pee Wee football and middle school have no athletic trainers or medical personnel on the field at the games. Additionally, many of the parents and coaches do not know much about concussions.”

Concussions: What You Need to Know
A concussion is caused by a blow or other injury that jars or shakes the brain inside the skull. The impact can affect how the brain functions — usually for a short period of time. Except for possible cuts or bruises on the head or face, there may be no other visible signs of a brain injury.

For parents of young football players, it’s important to know that a victim of a concussion doesn’t always lose consciousness. Some, though, will suffer the more expected symptoms, including getting knocked out and short-term memory loss.

Because of even a small chance of permanent brain problems, it is important to contact a doctor or concussion clinic, or go to the emergency room for proper diagnosis and treatment if you or someone you know has symptoms of a concussion. Symptoms include:

  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Balance issues
  • Attention deficit problems
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Sensitivity to light or noise
  • Irritability
  • Forgetfulness
  • Visual problems
  • Depression/anxiety
  • Drowsiness
  • Fatigue
  • Feel like “in a fog”
  • Dr. Hamilton said that parents and coaches of Pee Wee leagues and pre-High School competition should be keenly aware of the importance of not allowing a player back into the game after taking a big hit that could have resulted in a concussion. So, “when in doubt, take them out” and have them checked out for concussions, he said.

    “Second impact syndrome,” which refers to suffering a second concussion before fully recovering from the first one, can be dangerous, leading to excessive brain swelling.

    “The key is proper management, people are going to get concussions,” Dr. Hamilton said. “If they return to both play and academics too soon, or other physical activity, then it creates more problems and delays recovery.”

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