For football players, helmets are a crucial piece of equipment thought to reduce the severity of head injuries. But new research suggests that football helmets may do little to protect players from concussion.

This is according to a study due to be presented at the American Academy of Neurology's 66th Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, PA, in April.

To reach their findings, the research team, including study co-author Dr. Frank Condi of the Florida Center for Headache and Sports Neurology and the Florida State University College of Medicine, conducted an experiment that was a modification of the standard drop test system, which is approved by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment.

This test analyzed the strength and safety of 10 popular football helmet designs when exposed to impacts.

Sensors were placed in the head of a crash test dummy to measure the linear and rotational responses to repeated 12 mile-per-hour impacts, both with and without football helmets.

Most popular helmets offered the least protection

Results of the study revealed that on average, football helmets only reduced the risk of traumatic brain injury by 20%, compared with not wearing a helmet.

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Compared with not wearing a helmet, football helmets only reduced traumatic brain injury risks by 20%. Still, the researchers stress that helmets protect against linear impacts.

The 10 helmets tested were:

  • Adams a2000
  • Rawlings Quantum
  • Riddell 360
  • Riddell Revolution
  • Riddell Revolution Speed
  • Riddell VSR4
  • Schutt Air Advantage
  • Schutt DNA Pro+
  • Xenith X1, and
  • Xenith X2.

The Adams a2000 had the best protection against concussion, while the Schutt Air Advantage provided the worst protection.

However, the Adams a2000 came out worst on protection against closed head injury, while the Ridell 360 provided the best protection in this area.

Dr. Condi says a major concern is that the helmets offering the least protection against head injuries are the ones that are the most popular on the playing field.

He adds:

"Biomechanics researchers have long understood that rotational forces, not linear forces, are responsible for serious brain damage including concussion, brain injury complications and brain bleeds.

Yet generations of football and other sports participants have been under the assumption that their brains are protected by their investment in headwear protection."

However, the research team found that football helmets did provide protection against linear impacts, or those that might lead to skull fracture and bruising.

Leading football helmets were found to reduce the risk of skull fracture by 60-70% and the risk of focal brain tissue bruising by 70-80%, compared with not wearing a helmet.

Concussion protection significantly important for young players

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), emergency departments treat around 173,285 traumatic brain injuries related to sports and recreation every year in children and adolescents aged up to 19 years old.

Dr. Condi notes that the brains of young football players - including elementary and middle school, high school and college athletes - are still developing, meaning they are more likely to suffer long-term effects of head trauma.

With this in mind, he emphasizes that protection against concussion and complications of brain injury is particularly important for young players.

The safety of football helmets seems to be a hot topic. Medical News Today recently reported on a study suggesting that the risk of concussion for football players may be dependent on the type of helmet they are wearing.

The investigators found that football players who wore a Riddell Revolution helmet had a 54% reduction in concussion risk, compared with players who wore a Ridell VSR4 helmet.