PITTSBURGH – Newer helmet technology could reduce the risk of high school football players getting concussions, but not the severity of the injury, according to new research.
A three-year study by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center found that athletes who wore a helmet with more protection for the temple area of the head and jaw had fewer concussions than those wearing a standard helmet, said university neuropsychologist Micky Collins, the study's principal investigator.
The study, published in the February edition of the scientific journal, Neurosurgery, looked at 2,141 high school football players from 2002 to 2004. Of those, 1,173 wore the improved helmet and 968 wore standard helmets through both the pre- and regular seasons.
The study, funded by helmet maker Riddell, is the first to look at whether helmet technology can reduce the severity or number of concussions, Collins said.
The study showed the annual concussion rate was 5.3 percent in athletes wearing the new Revolution helmet and 7.6 percent in the older version. Revolution wearers were 31 percent less likely to sustain the an injury, compared with wearers of standard helmets, the study showed. The Revolution helmet was introduced in 2002.
However, helmet type made no difference in the recovery time of athletes suffering from concussions, Collins said.
Investigators used a test developed by UPMC to check the athletes' reaction and memory skills before and after concussions.
Collins said 50 percent of the athletes who had concussions did not recover within one week, 30 percent did not recover within two weeks and 15 percent did not recover within three weeks.
This is crucial because reduced cognitive skills also hurt the athletes in the classroom, Collins said.
"There's no such thing as a concussion-proof helmet," Collins warned. "The biggest mistake anyone can make is saying, 'This kid has a concussion. Put him in this helmet and send him out there.' ... Any athlete who has a concussion and goes back to play too soon, that's when the risk levels are high."
Experts studying sports-related brain injuries welcomed the study.
"(It) supports what we have anecdotally been discovering over the past few years," said Kevin Guskiewicz, chairman of the Department of Exercise and Sport Science at North Carolina.
Fewer concussions were reported among University of North Carolina players wearing Revolution helmets, he said.
Stefan Duma, director of the Center for Injury Biomechanics at Virginia Tech, called the UPMC study "a critical aspect in improving player health."
Duma and Guskiewicz are involved in separate studies to measure the acceleration of football players' heads in real time by installing wireless transmitters in their players' helmets, both Revolution and standard.
Guskiewicz said he hopes studies like his and UPMC's help researchers to better protect the brain from sports related injuries.
"The exciting part is it indicates there are design factors that can be modified to reduce your risk of concussion," Duma said. "Just showing they have shown a reduced risk with design change, maybe they can change the design more and keep improving."