Can a redesigned football helmet protect against concussions?

August 24, 2017
Based on an interview with Ronan Cahill, a family and sports medicine doctor at Swedish Spine Sports and Musculoskeletal Medicine in Seattle, WA, where we discussed the importance of proper concussion management.

Football season begins in a few short weeks; not only for the NFL but schools, as well. In September, kids across America will eagerly sign up for football and other contact sports. As a parent or caregiver, it’s important to understand the associated health risks, particularly concussion. Each year high school athletes suffer approximately 300,000 sports-related concussions in the United States alone. Of those, 25 percent do not seek medical attention. A concussion is a brain injury that, with proper rehabilitation, can fully recover. It is an injury that results from a blow to the head that alters the brain chemistry. Because of this, there are many symptoms associated with a concussion including headache, difficulty thinking clearly, irritability, dizziness and fatigue. Concussions are unique to every person because it depends on how your brain reacts to trauma. Anything can affect it, and recovery times are widely varied.

Common signs and symptoms of concussions

Symptoms may be subtle and may not even appear right away. Here are the common signs and symptoms of concussion, so you can identify them as soon as possible and seek medical attention:
  • Headache
  • Persistent pressure in the head
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Slurred speech
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Trouble falling asleep
  • Depression
  • Repeating questions

Concussions are more severe for young children

For parents considering football or a different contact sport for their young children, it is important to remember that a young brain is still developing. As a result, they will likely suffer more severe and longer lasting concussions because concussions may impede their brain from developing properly and lead to long-term developmental issues.

When adults get a concussion, they suffer damage to nerve cells or chemical abnormalities that suggest decreased brain function. However, when a child less than 15 years old gets a concussion, s/he often experiences a decrease in blood flow, and therefore oxygen, to the brain. 

“As a family doctor, my desire is for all kids to be as successful as possible. Most kids will grow up to earn money with their brains, not their bodies. To that end, I try to remind my patients to look at the big picture – beyond the Friday night ball game – which is inherently difficult for teens,” says Dr. Ronan Cahill, a family and sports medicine doctor at Swedish Spine Sports and Musculoskeletal Medicine.

It is important for parents, players and coaches to educate themselves and follow safety protocols during each game to help lower the risk of injury and concussion. Things like: head-up tackling, understanding how to prevent concussions, and being cognizant and patient with their bodies (if they need to heal from concussion) are important skills anyone who plays a contact sport should learn.

A warning about the long-term effects of multiple concussions

A recent study conducted by a neuropathologist has reignited concerns among professionals, schools and parents that athletes who suffer concussions are at a higher risk for long-term brain damage. In the study, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) was found in 99 percent of deceased, former NFL players who donated their brains to scientific research. CTE is a neurodegenerative brain disease found in individuals who have been exposed to repeated head trauma, and there is an undeniable link to athletes who play football.

If you’ve suffered a concussion, you should not return to moderate or strenuous activities or sports without getting approval from your doctor. If you were to suffer a second concussion before the first concussion has had time to properly heal, it may cause a condition known as second impact syndrome. Second impact syndrome increases your chances of severe brain swelling and may be fatal.

Concussion prevention techniques

Some of the best ways to prevent concussion while playing football are:
  • Playing by the rules
  • Wearing a helmet that fits well and is in good condition
  • Practicing the head-up tackling technique
  • Limiting practice scrimmages or full-speed drills
  • Learning proper technique from a skilled athletic trainer

New football helmet technology may significantly reduce impact forces

Concerns about the long-term effect of concussions or repeated head trauma are nothing new. In fact, there is a newly redesigned helmet making its debut in the NFL this fall, and it aims to significantly reduce the force of impact to better protect the brain and lower concussion rates. Despite advancements in technology, helmets have remained virtually the same since the 1980s.

“This helmet has a novel approach to absorb impact, but I do not believe it is going to eliminate concussions. Head blows will still have brain movement within the skull despite the impact that is absorbed by the helmet,” continued Dr. Cahill. “One of the dangers in a helmet like this is lobbying it as a solution for concussions. My fear is that it may actually encourage players and coaches to put less emphasis on safety protocols, which could lead to a rise in concussion rates.”

“With all that said, I hope this helmet will reduce head impact and the rate of concussions, but I remain skeptical. I would like to see a reduction in the concussion epidemic through proper tackling techniques and learning what to do when you do get a concussion. Athletes need to accept that the pathway to recovery may take longer than expected."

The importance of rest and returning to activity gradually

After suffering a mild to moderate concussion, it is important to rest and limit your activity as much as possible for 72 hours. After three days, however, you should resume light activities to exercise your brain muscle without provoking any symptoms. It is a common misconception that people should rest and limit activity until they are no longer exhibiting any symptoms. But, it is very important to resume light activities to avoid feeling worse and prolonging the symptoms. The brain is like any other muscle in your body and will take time to rehabilitate. The good news is, more than 85 percent of concussions heal completely when properly managed by a medical specialist.

“I remind my patients that the brain is a muscle, so if it’s injured and you try to use it too soon, it can hurt, delay recovery or cause a worse injury,” says Dr. Cahill. “One of the most important parts of my job, and one that I enjoy the most is educating people about their bodies and providing insights on how to fine-tune their muscles, joints and ligaments so they can get back to enjoying their favorite hobby or sport. The same goes for concussions and educating patients about their brain. It’s important to me that people know how to help their body heal after injury.”

If a severe concussion occurs during a sports practice or game, tell the athletic coach and go to a doctor as soon as possible. Why? In more severe cases, spine injury can accompany a concussion. Spine injuries can lead to difficulty breathing, nerve pain, headaches and varying degrees of paralysis.

“When I speak with student athletes, I always stress that they are a student first and an athlete second,” says Dr. Cahill. “It’s important that athletes keep their long-term goals in mind because their health and life are more important than any ball game. Think beyond the game – think big picture.”