Every summer I read about a new line of helmets promising to protect athletes from concussions, especially on the football field. They promise state-of-the-art technology and cutting edge new safety innovations, such as the recent inclusion of motion sensors to monitor hits taken by athletes.
The only problem is, they overpromise what they can achieve every time. No matter how advanced helmets get, they simply can’t cure the brain injury epidemic in football.
Don’t get me wrong, new helmet technologies may be taking steps towards marginally reducing the rates of brain injury. Using new sensors directly installed in the helmets can also give teams more information to track the hits most likely to cause an injury.
Despite this, they are just a skin-deep treatment for a problem much more deeply rooted in football.
“New helmet technology may be beneficial for football’s problem of concussions. However, I do not believe that any new helmet can ultimately thoroughly solve the problem, as individuals will still be experiencing head collisions and impacts,” Dr. Teena Shetty, a neurologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City told CBS New York via email. “Even if these helmets lessen the force of the blow, repeated force over time (including sub-concussive blows) may imply consequences that we are still trying to understand.”
Shetty particularly cautions against putting too much faith into new devices like motion sensors. Teams using these may put too much stock into readings from sensors when there is no specific amount of force necessary to cause a concussion.
“This technology has the possibility to lead to change in the sport. However, one detail that makes this data analysis difficult is the individuality of mild Traumatic Brain Injury, or concussion,” said Dr. Shetty. “Whereas one blow with a small amount of force may lead to a concussion in one individual, another player may sustain repeated hits to the head over a season and experience no concussive symptoms.”
For now, head trauma is simply a part of the sport, and helmets can’t change that. To truly address the problem, football needs a wider cultural change to make athletes and staff more likely to recognize and report brain injuries.
“One of the most powerful ways to minimize risk is to create an atmosphere where players feel safe and comfortable reporting symptoms of a head injury,” said Dr. Shetty. “The most dangerous scenario is when a player returns to the field before they are fully recovered, as a second impact if not fully recovered can be devastating. I have seen the sport begin to change in this direction, as players are automatically removed from play after a hit to the head, but there is still a ways to go to make sport even safer.”