If you read the marketing material printed on some popular sports helmets, you’d most likely get the impression that scientific research proves these particular helmets will provide your child better protection against sports-related concussions (SRC). Not necessarily so says Dr.Alison Brooks, with the University of Wisconsin.
Brooks and her team reviewed three helmet brands used during the 2012 football season.
Students included in the study were 9th through 12th graders with a mean age of 15.9 years. The students – who completed a preseason demographic and injury questionnaire (with 171 reporting a concussion in the prior 12 months) – wore various models of the three football helmet brands. Athletic trainers recorded the incidence and severity of SRC throughout the football season. More than half (52%) of the players wore Riddell helmets, 35% wore Schutt helmets, and 13% wore Xenith helmets. The helmets were purchased between 2002 and 2012.
No difference was seen in the rate or severity (based on days lost) of sport-related concussion by helmet type or helmet purchase year, Dr. Brooks reported at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
"Contrary to manufacturer claims, lower risk and severity of SRC were not associated with a specific helmet brand," Dr. Brooks said.
Despite limited prospective data on how specific football helmets and mouth guards affect the incidence and severity of SRC, manufacturers often cite laboratory research – based on impact (drop) testing – showing that their brand and/or a specific model will lessen impact forces associated with SRC, and they often claim that players who use their equipment may have a reduced SRC risk, she said, noting that schools and parents may feel pressured to purchase newer, more expensive equipment.
The current findings suggest that caution should be used when considering these claims, Dr. Brooks said.
Other bias may have had an impact on the researcher’s findings including schools and players who were aware of the study and recall bias –with respect to the previous concussion status. But Brooks noted that the findings are important because about 40,000 SRCs occur in high school football payers in the U.S. Brooks said in an interview that "These preliminary findings are important in helping parents and coaches understand that there is no compelling evidence that any particular helmet or mouth guard significantly reduces concussion risk."
The researchers also looked at specially constructed mouth guards versus generic mouth guards and whether there was a noticeable difference in protection. Sixty-one percent of the players wore generic models provided by their school, and 39% wore specialized mouth guards custom fitted by a dental professional or specifically marketed to reduce SRC.
The SRC rate was actually higher for those who wore a specialized or custom-fitted mouth guard than for those who wore a generic mouth guard, Dr. Brooks said.
Helmets and mouth guards are nonetheless effective for doing what they are designed to do – prevent skull fractures and intracranial bleeds and dental injuries – and are important pieces of equipment that need to be maintained in good condition, and be fit and worn properly. There is also always a role for trying to improve technology. However, it may not be possible to significantly reduce concussion risk using helmet technology, said Brooks.
"I think focus could be better spent on rule enforcement and coaching education on tackling technique to limit or avoid contact to the head, perhaps limiting contact practices, and behavior change about the intent of tackling to injure or ‘punish’ the opponent," she added.