By Dev K. Mishra, M.D.
President, Sideline Sports Doc
Clinical Assistant Professor of Orthopedic Surgery, Stanford University
• Independent and objective scientific analysis is adding to our knowledge of football helmet safety
• The researchers at Virginia Tech will next analyze ice hockey helmets and then in the coming years look at baseball, softball, and lacrosse
• I would predict that the evidence will be used by parents to demand the safest equipment for their kids
Whenever possible we like to base our medical decisions on high-quality scientific evidence. The issue of concussion safety can become emotionally charged, which makes it even more necessary to seek out unbiased opinion when making recommendations on equipment, rules changes, sideline treatment of professional athletes, etc.
And so it is with helmet design. In football, we’ve come a very long way from the early days of leather “helmets”, and professional hockey in the relatively recent past didn’t even require helmets. Technical change requires buy-in from the players, who often have strong feelings about the traditions or culture of the game that may run counter to the proposed technical changes.
This is where objective analysis really helps. In football helmet design, the collaboration between Virginia Tech University and Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences has produced the Virginia Tech STAR Helmet Rating System. I find the testing methodology to be sound and well thought-out, utilizing linear and rotational testing. We will undoubtedly learn more about the exact risk factors for concussion but for now the Virginia Tech system is a big step in the right direction.
After football, one of the sports with the highest concussion risks is ice hockey. It is also a sport with a rapidly growing youth participation rate in the U.S., so it makes sense that science and industry take a close look at making the concussion risk as low as we possibly can. This article in the New York Times reports on a recent announcement by the researchers at Virginia Tech that they’ll be applying the STAR testing to hockey helmets. A hockey helmet rating will be published later this year.
Ideally, we should see similar testing by other independent researchers, and also look at external helmet padding such as the Shockstrip and Guardian Cap. The external padding makes some sense but in my opinion we simply don’t have the independent research to endorse use from the medical standpoint. The Virginia Tech researchers will look at baseball helmets, softball helmets, and lacrosse helmets using similar methodology over the next few years.
Design engineers have made enormous improvements in automobile safety over the last several years, and without question we can improve sports helmet safety too. My prediction is that the scientific evidence will compel parents to demand the best protection for their kids. It may take quite a bit of time and it may be expensive, but change is coming and all our young athletes will benefit.