Millions of dollars are being devoted to developing and testing helmets that could potentially prevent concussions, but new research suggests solving a much simpler helmet issue could reduce the chance of severe brain injuries significantly.
According to a study presented at the 2016 Meeting of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), high school football players with improperly fitting helmets were at much greater risk for severe concussions.
“This study suggests that incorrect helmet fit may be one variable that predisposes a football player to sustain a more severe concussion,” said senior study author Joseph Torg, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine at Temple University Health System, who has identified acceptable tackle techniques for the NFL.
For the study, the team assessed data collected from nine sports seasons from 2005 to 2014 for the National High School Sports-Related Injury Surveillance System. The data included health information from 4,580 athletes between the ages of 13 and 19.
The researchers say athletes who experienced concussions while wearing improperly fitting helmets had higher rates of drowsiness, hyper-excitability, and insensitivity to noise. Many of these athletes experienced more than one of the 13 concussive symptoms reviewed in the study. The report also noted athletes wearing helmets lined with air bladders experienced longer lasting concussions.
“Correct helmet fit varies with helmet design, and players are encouraged to fit their equipment according to manufacturers’ instructions,” said study co-author Dustin Greenhill, MD, an orthopaedic surgery resident at Temple.
Dr. Greenhill explained that when an athlete’s helmet is not properly fitted, the cervical muscles in their neck and head may not be able to reduce the force of an impact on their brain. He also said helmet fit can change and evolve over the course of a season due to a number of factors, such as sweat, hair style, rain, cold weather clothing, and other factors.
“The risk factor of poor helmet fit should be minimized through mandated adult supervision and midseason spot checks,” Dr. Greenhill said.