Newer, heavier and more expensive football helmets will not lower a player's risk of concussion, new research finds.
A study of more than 1,300 players on football teams at 36 Wisconsin high schools found that players wearing older helmets received just as much protection from concussion as players with flashy new models, said study author Timothy McGuine, senior scientist and research coordinator for the University of Wisconsin Health Sports Medicine Center in Madison.
"The helmet technology is advanced as it can be. They've done a wonderful job. We don't have skull fractures in football," he said. "But I don't know how much padding can be put in to prevent the brain from sloshing around inside the cranium."
This research, to be presented Saturday at the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine's annual meeting in Chicago, comes at a time when some sports equipment manufacturers are marketing expensive football helmets amid claims that they offer better protection against concussion than earlier models, McGuine said.
"They're all being touted as the next best thing to prevent sports injuries, and it really puts the squeeze on athletic directors and coaches," he said. "Some companies are going right to the parents and saying, 'We know it's too expensive for the school to pay for it, so you should pay for this helmet to protect your child.'"
About 40,000 U.S. high school football players receive a concussion, which is a form of mild traumatic brain injury, every year during play or practice, McGuine said.
As part of the study, licensed athletic trainers at each high school kept detailed records during the 2012 football season. This included recording the safety equipment used by each player, including mouth guards, the number of games and practices in which each player participated, and the number of sports-related concussions sustained.
The players wore helmets manufactured by Riddell, Schutt and Xenith.
Out of 1,332 players tracked, 115 sustained a concussion during the season, McGuine reported.
Researchers found no difference in the rate of concussion by either the type of helmet worn or the helmet's age.
"We found the actual incidence of concussion was not more for players wearing the newest helmets versus wearing helmets 3, 4 or 5 years old," McGuine said. "We also looked at [concussion] severity by helmet model. No difference there, either."
The study also found that players who wore a specialized or custom-fitted mouth guard actually had a higher risk of concussion than players who wore a generic mouth guard provided by their school.
"Should parents pay $30 for a mouth guard to protect their son against concussion, or just use the $1 mouth guard the school provides?" McGuine asked.
The American Medical Society of Sports Medicine released a position statement in January that said hard sports helmets can prevent impact injuries such as lacerations or fractures but have not been shown to reduce the incidence or severity of concussions, said Dr. Anne-Felicia Ambrose, medical director of the traumatic brain injury unit in the department of rehabilitation medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City.
"In terms of equipment, there really isn't that much more we can do," Ambrose said. "Where we have a lot of potential for reducing concussion is the way the game is played."
Altering the rules of football games and the guidelines governing practice sessions can make the game safer and prevent concussions, she said.
For example, limiting contact between players outside of competition is one means of reducing concussions, she said. "A lot more concussions occur during practice, when coaches cannot have their eyes on everyone on the field," Ambrose said. "The chance of impact is increased."
McGuine agreed. "I don't see any reason for kids to have full tackle on practice days," he said.
Coaches and athletic trainers also can help reduce injuries by properly fitting each player's helmet at the start of the season and checking the fit every week, he added.
Research presented at meetings are typically considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.
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