Despite the claims from certain manufacturers, the age and brand of a football helmet was not found to be associated with a reduced risk of concussion, according to a study presented July 13 during the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine’s 2013 annual meeting.
The study, which has yet to be published in a scientific journal, assessed data collected by licensed athletic trainers at 36 public and private high schools in Wisconsin during the 2012 football season. A total of 1,332 high school student-athletes were included in the study, 251 of whom reported sustaining at least one sports-related concussion within the past six years. A total of 171 student-athletes in the study reported having suffered a sports-related concussion within the previous 12 months.
The athletic trainers at each school took note of the helmet brand, model, and purchase year, to get a sense of whether certain helmets were associated with lower incidences of concussions than others. The ATs also recorded the type of mouth guard used by each school, along with the number of athletic exposures (both in practices and during games) and number of sports-related concussions sustained.
Of the 1,332 student-athletes examined, 52 percent wore helmets manufactured by Riddell, 35 percent used Schutt helmets, and the remaining 15 percent were equipped with Xenith helmets. Thirty-nine percent of those helmets were purchased in either 2011 or 2012, 33 percent were purchased in 2009 or 2010, and the remaining 28 percent were purchased from 2002 to 2008.
During the study, 115 of the student-athletes (8.6 percent) sustained a total of 116 sports-related concussions. Neither the age nor brand of the helmet made a difference in the rate of sports-related concussions sustained by the student-athletes, the study authors discovered. They also found no difference in the severity of the concussions sustained, based on number of days lost, between players who wore Riddell, Schutt, and Xenith helmets.
“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,” said lead study author Timothy McGuine, a health scientist and athletic trainer at the University of Wisconsin, to HealthDay reporter Dennis Thompson. “We also looked at [concussion] severity by helmet model. No difference there, either.”
In terms of mouth guards, 61 percent of the players wore generic models provided by the school, while the remaining 39 percent wore models that were either custom fitted by a dental professional or marketed specifically to reduce the risk of sports-related concussion. As it turned out, the rate of sports-related concussions in the players wearing the specialized mouth guards was nearly twice as high as those who wore the generic models provided by their schools.
The helmet- and mouth-guard-related findings led McGuine and his colleagues to conclude that sports medicine providers must take caution when considering the claims made by manufacturers about their products’ ability to decrease the risk of concussion. Scientifically, based on this study, there isn’t a product that can reliably do so.
Currently, the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) certifies all football helmets used by high schools. As I’ve explained in the past, the current NOCSAE football-helmet standards require helmets to withstand a 60-inch free fall (a test to prevent fractured skulls), but do not require helmets to be tested against the forces suspected of causing concussions. (One possible reason for that? Scientists still remain unclear about exactly which forces cause concussions.)
This new study may simply serve as confirmation for what some scientists and politicians already suspected. Back in 2011, Senator Tom Udall, D-N.M., called Riddell specifically into question for allegedly making false and misleading claims about the ability of their equipment to reduce the risk of sports-related concussions.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.