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Helmets provide first line of defense against concussions

POSTED: October 22, 2011 10:53 p.m.

A typical football helmet doesn't look like it does in the advertisements.

Gone is the pristine shine and gleaming logo. They have been replaced by scuffs and scratches, scars from the constant hits that mark the violent sport in which they are used.

The marks are reminders of the risks all athletes take when they wear those helmets onto the field - risks the helmets are supposed to protect against.

Helmets have obviously progressed from the days of the leatherheads. Advancements in design and manufacturing have helped create a product that has almost eliminated the risk of fatality that once marked the sport of football.

But another risk has gone largely ignored until recently.

Concussions.

They are a risk players at all levels take every time they step onto the field. It's the nature of a game that encourages individuals to run full speed into each other and drive them into the ground at all costs.

As more information is gained about the potential long-term effects of concussions, however, discussions on helmet safety have arisen.

Local officials agree that more adequate adjustments in equipment safety are always desired.

Gordon Higgins, the director for community relations and athletics for Hall County Schools, said the county is constantly looking into new information that can help increase the safety of student-athletes.

He noted the Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing (ImPACT) that the county has implemented to help track an individual's recovery from a concussion.

"We now have ImPACT testing in six of the Hall County high schools," Higgins said. "So as far as being on record as being concerned about concussion prevention and student safety, that goes without saying. We are very much aware of the importance of it and are doing what we can to help make them safer."

Hall County superintendent Will Schofield made the same thing clear.

"We should always be open to better ways to ensure the safety of our athletes," Schofield said in an email. "Much like the improvements in the automobile industry, I suspect the engineering behind helmets' ability to decrease impact to players varies and is always improving."

Currently, the standard for helmet safety in place at all levels of football is set by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (Nocsae).

Nocsae approves helmets based on their ability to withstand the extreme forces that can cause fractures in the skull.

If a helmet is approved, it receives a seal stating that it meets Nocsae standards.

The problem with that, says Stefan Duma, the head of the School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences at Virginia Tech, is that not all approved helmets are equal.

"The reality is that some helmets are better than others," Duma said. "The difference between Nocsae and ourselves is that Nocsae says that as long as they are below a threshold, they are equal.

"We're saying a threshold approach is not the best."

To combat this shortcoming in Nocsae, Duma led a study at Virginia Tech that would test and rate Nocsae-approved helmets on their abilities to protect against concussions.

After testing, helmets would be given a rating of zero to five stars based on their ability to limit the acceleration of the head on impact.

Duma likened his rating system to that of the automobile industry.

"All cars pass the federal standard," he said, comparing that to Nocsae's standard of approval.

"On top of that, there is a star rating to indicate which cars are safer than others. That's what we'd like to see done in helmets."

While his system sounds good in theory, many don't think it's as cut-and-dry as Duma makes it sound.

Ralph Swearngin, executive director of the Georgia High School Association and member of the National Federation of State High Schools rules committee, said that helmets that meet Nocsae's standard should be considered safe.

He explained why it would be dangerous to take it further, like Duma, by comparing it to cars.

"Some car crashes could have more damage than others," he said. "In a car crash, there are so many other variables - the speed of impact, the direction of impact that affect the severity of the crash. Just because it's safer doesn't mean that it is always going to be safe."

Mike Oliver, the executive director of Nocsae, pointed out the same shortcomings in Virginia Tech's study.

"The Virginia Tech rating system is not a standard," he said via email. "It does not address the functions of a standard, nor does it offer a probability of a specific level of protection."

Medical opinions on whether a rating system should be included in Nocsae's standard are varied.

At a U.S. Senate hearing targeting the claims of concussion-limiting equipment on Wednesday, Jeffrey S. Kutcher of the neurology department at the University of Michigan said it was dangerous to make claims of concussion prevention.

"The potential harm that I see being caused by products that claim to prevent concussion when they do not is far more than simply the financial harm of paying more for something that isn't likely to work as claimed," he said.

"The public deserves to know that equipment has a significant, but inherently limited, ability to prevent concussions."

Dr. John Vachtsevanos, an orthopedic surgeon in Gainesville and a consultant for the Atlanta Falcons who has dealt in concussions in the past, spoke to the contrary.

"Just because they're approved doesn't mean that one isn't better than another," he said. "With concussions, what really matters is the amount of acceleration that the head and brain experiences."

Duma noted that the point of his rating system was to indicate which helmets did the best job of managing that acceleration.

Many local coaches are familiar with the test and have equally varied opinions.

Gainesville High School coach Bruce Miller said that he's "sure (the study) is going to come into play eventually if it hasn't already", while Bob Christmas of North Hall said that, while he agrees with a lot of the results, the study is not without its flaws.

"I think if you read up on it, you'll see there are some flaws in that as well," he said. "But we always want to look for the best stuff, whether or not it's ranked highly in their tests."

Both teams' helmets, as it turns out, grade well on Virginia Tech's study, as do many others around the region.

Neither Higgins nor Swearngin were familiar with specifics of Virginia Tech's system, but both agreed that they will look at all the information that becomes available.

"If that information were out and available, I would take it to the football rules committee and examine it nationally," Swearngin said. "I would want the information taken everywhere. This is a matter of ongoing scrutiny."

Schofield echoed these thoughts.

"As we learn more, we will certainly seek to use equipment that best protects our students," he said.

Gainesville City Schools superintendent Merrianne Dyer declined comment, citing a lack of knowledge on the subject and noted that she would rely on her athletics staff and sports trainers to advise her on the issue.

With varying opinions on both sides, a change in the standard should not be expected, but Duma believes that the results of his rating system can already be felt.

"People need a more informed decision on which helmets to use," he said. "Plain and simple."



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