The concussion epidemic: Should helmets be banned from football?

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Published January 09, 2014

| FoxNews.com

American football: One of the country’s favorite pastimes is also one of the most dangerous.

Characterized by hard tackles and intense speeds, the sport is conducive to a number of serious injuries, but there is one that has received a substantial amount of attention: mild traumatic brain injury and concussions.  In 2012, the National Football League (NFL) experienced a total of 189 concussions during their regular season, translating to more than 11 concussions each week.

And those are just the statistics for professional players.  College players experience an average of 2.5 concussions for every 1,000 “game-related exposures,” and 25,000 players between the ages of 8 and 19 are taken to emergency rooms for concussions each year.  With the rates of these head injuries either increasing or stabilizing over the past 50 years, many health experts have started referring to this football trend as the “concussion epidemic.”

So what is the solution? As more people turn their attention to this problem, an increasing amount of focus has been placed on the football helmet.  Many experts claim that it’s failing at its job; not only does the helmet’s design fall short of proper concussion protection, but some say the presence of the head gear may actually encourages players to hit with their heads.  

This argument has led some player advocates to offer up a drastic solution: Banning football helmets altogether.

It’s a radical idea, but they claim that discussion on the topic is needed – in order to spark a paradigm shift in the way the game of football is played.

Dissecting concussions

A concussion can be caused by either a blow to the head or when the head is intensely shaken. This movement causes the gelatinous brain to slide back and forth, forcefully hitting the inner wall of the skull.

“Imagine your head is an egg and your skull is the shell,” Ainissa Ramirez, a former engineering professor at Yale University and author of Newton’s Football, told FoxNews.com. “Your brain is the yolk.  When I shake the egg, the yolk inside is going to move on the inside and hit the inside of the egg shell.”

After an individual sustains a concussion, the immediate symptoms are usually temporary.  Depending on which area of the brain has been damaged, patients can experience anything from confusion and headaches to dizziness, nausea and more.  But with proper rest and rehabilitation, these symptoms often subside within a few days.

Yet, more and more evidence has revealed that concussions aren’t solely a short-term concern.  Numerous studies have found that concussions raise the risk for memory and attention deficits later on in life, and multiple brain injuries of this type can greatly increase a football player’s risk of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – a degenerative brain disease that can lead to memory loss, impaired judgment, depression and eventually, progressive dementia.

According to Dr. Robert Cantu, concussions can actually cause permanent, structural damage to the brain, which can wreak havoc months – and even years – later.

“It’s both a metabolic injury, but there’s an element of serious concussions where there’s also a structural injury – which cannot be seen by standard CAT scan or MRI,” Cantu, a clinical professor in the department of neurology and senior advisor to the NFL Head, Neck and Spine Committee, told FoxNews.com. “So when you do the routine scanning of the brain with a concussion it looks normal, but when people die after a concussion, you do see axonal damage in the microscopic neuropathology.”

Why ban the helmet?

The football helmet was originally introduced in the late 1800s, after 18 players died from skull fractures sustained during play. Since then, deaths from the sport have plummeted, but some argue the helmet’s introduction ultimately gave rise to the concussion epidemic players are experiencing today. According to the National College Athletic Association (NCAA), football-related concussions have steadily increased since the early 1980s.

Currently, helmet-to-helmet hits are banned by both the NFL and the NCAA, but as tackling has grown more aggressive over the years, accidents continue to occur.

“In football, the majority of the time [a concussion] happens because the heads collide,” Cantu said. “You have tremendous forces involved because of the mass of the body.  When you have two heads collide, you have a tremendous quick movement of the head on the neck – and that causes the violent shaking.”

In recent years, many high-profile players have spoken out about their brain trauma, including Alex Karras, a former defensive tackle for the Detroit Lions who was diagnosed with dementia, and Super Bowl XXVI MVP Mark Rypien, a former quarterback who suffers from depression and says his memory is failing him.  Also a number of high-profile suicides – such as those of Junior Seau, Ray Easterling and Dave Duerson – have highlighted the mental health risks surrounding concussions and CTE.

“We have an epidemic, and there aren’t solutions to change it,” Ramirez said.  “Fines don’t work – such as getting penalized if you use your head.  And fear of a future illness doesn’t really do it; they’re living in the here and now.  So how do we create that paradigm shift?  It has to be a crazy idea.”

In her book, Ramirez and her co-author Allen St. John offer an interesting concept: Should helmets be banned?  Ramirez argued that by removing the helmet, players will be more inclined to protect their heads rather than use them to tackle.  She also noted that other contact sports without helmets – such as rugby, Australian rules football and soccer –have much lower rates of concussions than American football.

“The game got even more dangerous when they added another safety feature,” Ramirez added. “When they put in the face mask, they made players feel invincible, which was the impetus for the concussion epidemic; they started tackling with their heads.  By adding this face mask, we changed behavior so that it became more dangerous for concussions.”

The idea of banning helmets may sound good in theory, but many admit it’s not exactly feasible.  So rather than remove the helmet – some propose changing it.

A new kind of helmet

Removing the helmet may prompt some football players to better protect their heads, but experts argue that it would simply replace the concussion epidemic with a much deadlier trend.

“The bottom line is that you can’t play football without a helmet without killing people,” Cantu said.  “People naively think that rugby is a safer sport than football, and those people that think that way aren’t aware of the fact that people have died; it’s got issues of its own.  It does have fewer concussions, because there’s not headgear worn, so the concussions that happen are more accidental.”

So instead of banning the football helmet altogether, many have proposed creating a better kind of helmet – one that is meant to absorb a forceful impact much more efficiently. This idea is one of the main motivations behind the creation of the Guardian Cap, a one-size-fits-all helmet cover that is meant to be worn on any current football or lacrosse helmet.

The Guardian Cap design consists of 37 foam pockets, which each dissipate force individually.  While the cap isn’t meant to completely prevent concussions, the manufacturers say the product helps to reduce the force of impacts, making hard hits much less intense.

“We’ve come up with this concept of a soft-hard-soft helmet,” Lee Hanson, the founder and creator of Guardian Caps, told FoxNews.com. “In addition to being soft, it reduces linear impact and also reduces transverse impact… We’ve also decoupled the padding on the outside, so if you get hit, the padding moves with the force.  Your head stays straight and your helmet moves.”

Hanson said 21,000 of their caps are being used on high school and college football fields across the United States, and some players have even started wearing them during games.  He also noted that many other engineers and manufacturers have created similar helmets utilizing the soft-hard-soft design, but it’s been difficult to get these new helmet concepts to catch on.

“Football helmets have not changed in 50 years,” Hanson said. “There’s a hard shell with various padding on the inside.  It’s gone from webbing, to water pockets, to airbags, to foam, to gel, but the concept of the helmet has not changed.  Yet cars have changed [to become safer].  Why is everything else improving, but football helmets have not?”

To learn more about Guardian Caps, visit guardiancaps.com.

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