Researchers have published a new study that sheds light on the limitation of protection helmets offer to football players. The study has shown that the current crop of football helmets provide inadequate protection from hits to the side of the head. 

Along with rotational force, impacts to the side of the head can cause brain injuries and encephalopathy. Due to the high number of contacts involved in a highly physical sport like American Football, football players need adequate protection to reduce the risk of injuries.

"Protection against concussion and complications of brain injury is especially important for young players, including elementary and middle school, high school and college athletes, whose still-developing brains are more susceptible to the lasting effects of trauma," said study co-author Frank Conidi MD, DO, MS. Conidi is the vice chair of the Sports Neurology Section of the American Academy of Neurology.

The study was conducted using a modified version of the standard drop test used by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment. This type of test is often used to check the efficacy of sports safety equipment. The researchers also used a crash test dummy head and neck assembly as a stand in for humans during the testing procedures. To measure the effects a blow to the human head, a number of sensors were placed on the dummy. The blows were clocked in at 12 miles per hour and the researchers applied repeated blows to their test rig.

"The scientists conducted 330 tests to measure how well 10 popular football helmet designs protected against traumatic brain injury, including: Adams a2000, Rawlings Quantum, Riddell 360, Riddell Revolution, Riddell Revolution Speed, Riddell VSR4, Schutt Air Advantage, Schutt DNA Pro+, Xenith X1 and Xenith X2," said the AAN in a press release.

While these helmets have been specifically designed to protect the head from brain injuries, the results of the tests are not very positive. The tests showed that the current crop of football helmets can only reduce the risk of encephalopathy by an average 20 percent, which is much lower than previously thought. Among the helmets tested, the Schutt Air Advantage provided the least amount of protection from concussions while the Adams a2000 did better than all the others. For reducing the risk of closed head injuries, the Adams a2000 provided the least amount of protection while the Ridell 360 did better than the others. 

For providing protection from linear forces however, the helmets included in the test did quite well. On average, the helmets reduced the risk of brain tissue bruising by around 70 to 80 percent. For reducing the risks of skull fractures, the helmets also did well with an average reduction of about 60 to 70 percent. However, rotational forces are more dangerous due to the fact that they can cause more serious damage to the brain compared to linear impacts. 

"Alarmingly, those that offered the least protection are among the most popular on the field," said Conidi. "Biomechanics researchers have long understood that rotational forces, not linear forces, are responsible for serious brain damage including concussion, brain injury complications and brain bleeds. Yet generations of football and other sports participants have been under the assumption that their brains are protected by their investment in headwear protection."

The researchers' findings, which were released Feb. 17, will also be presented at the upcoming annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology in Philadelphia. The meeting will be held from April 26 to May 3 of this year.

An earlier study by different researchers suggested that concussion risks varied according to football helmet designs.

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