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Football Concussion Issues May Drive Helmet Technology

Unless you have been hiding under a rock, you know that concussions among football players here in the U.S. have created headlines lately. Lo and behold, football players (particularly at the college and NFL levels) are subjected to serious concussions quite frequently, and countless minor blows to the head. Brain injuries are now recognized as a serious problem for these athletes.

New helmet technologies are being researched and developed to reduce these brain injuries among football players. The number of proposed new helmet designs is significant, and we invite readers to share their expertise with us through an email. Also, do you think that helmet designs driven by a concern for football concussions could lead to improved motorcycle helmet designs? Share your thoughts with us.

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MD Readers Respond:

  • I think some people are missing the point with this. Obviously, multi-impact helmets are vastly different in design to motorsport helmets. The advantage I see being gained is better understanding of physiology and what forces truly initiate injury. For a long time – helmet standards were arbitrary at best *ahem* Snell *cough*. To a degree, things are improving. But having survived a traumatic brain injury (the doc said I’m supposed to be dead) on my motorcycle over two years ago, with no apparent lingering effects (God bless Arai) – anything that may further our understanding of how to deal with blows to the head is a positive thing in my book.   Brett
  • In my former life as an engineering student I spent some research hours on motorcycle helmet tech. Most of the comments on here are really on the mark. The demands for a motorcycle helmet are more intense, broader, and far less specific. In addition to the aesthetic, comfort, and aerodynamic demands of daily riding, the helmet must be able to withstand, to a reasonable degree, a variety of assaults: abrasion resistance, penetration resistance, some fire retardation (or at least a lack of incendiary properties), and the all-important impact resistance. In order to meet all these needs, the helmet manufacturers have persuaded their customers to accept the compromise of a helmet that destroys itself to dissipate kinetic energy; one-time use and replacement. If you want to be a cheapskate and not replace your helmet, the solution is simple: don’t fall off your bike.

    The reality of concussions in football is not news. The current hoopla surrounding this reality is new. I’m not really sure why everybody chose /now/ to get alarmed. Up until the current time, we were tacitly willing to accept that a football helmet was designed to keep the head from bleeding, and that ablation would occur inside the skull instead of on the exterior.

    Now that we’ve decided as a society that we care about the contents of a football player’s skull after all, I predict that our options for limiting their exposure to concussions will prove to be inadequate, and that most of you will go back to ignoring them. The commentary regarding the differences in design of helmets also applies to the evolution of the human head. Specifically, a motorcycle accident is not just a one-time thing for your helmet, it’s also a relatively isolated event for your brain. After you have a good one, usually you get yourself a helicopter ride, some medical attention, and a couple weeks of rest, bike repairs, and waiting for your new helmet to arrive in the post. Then you try a little harder not to fall off the bike for a while. After a football player experiences head trauma, he hits his head again 35 seconds later. If it’s really bad he waits two weeks.

    However, there are some technologies that could be put to good use in an attempt to help these guys avoid repeated head trauma.

    -One reader mentioned pad replacement between downs, which is obviously out of the question as the [flippin’] games take four hours already, five if you’re an Iggles fan. However, they could design pads that last for one offensive/defensive series and that are designed to be compromised in the event of a major impact, i.e. if you are on special teams or if you take a hit big enough to warrant an injury timeout, at least they would save you some of the impact. As of now, the little foam pads they have are practically worthless and I doubt they get replaced for any reason other than odor. Essentially, they would need to develop impact absorbing material that offers a non-linear response to impact, providing an elastic response to light impact but becoming rigid and fracturing for impacts of higher speed and/or force. This could be established both through the development of advanced closed-cell foam and through management of the shell/foam interface. I don’t think this would even be a desirable behavior in a helmet for street motorcycles, as we need a helmet that will ablate and absorb as much energy as possible…once. Such technology would be good for the off-road set, and in fact may already be a design consideration in off-road helmets.

    -Another option with football helmets is structural optimization of the shell material. Due to the fact that the hits in a football game are fairly specific and predictable in terms of speed, load, and direction, the helmet could be improved for protection from certain impacts. Most of the head trauma probably occurs from spear tackles to the front of the head, knees to the side of the head, and probably less frequently when players fall on the back of their head. By switching from a molded plastic to engineered materials, e.g. carbon kevlar, the stiffness and elasticity of the helmet can be optimized to deal with those impacts from those three or four directions. Structural optimization would not be as useful in a moto helmet because we need global protection from unanticipated hazards; the hits can and do come from any direction.

    -A final design consideration is the integration of the shoulder pads with the helmet. Essentially, the shoulder pads can be designed to take an increased role in neck protection, allowing the helmet designer greater freedom in optimizing for impact protection while maintaining light weight and flexibility. The pads could even contribute to impact resistance by stacking behind the helmet during a spear tackle. Since I’m not Mad Max, I don’t see how this helps moto helmet design. We need a low, rigid skirt both for aerodynamics and for neck protection.

    We’ve developed a marvelous technology for head protection in football: it’s called rugby. When you don’t have a helmet on, you tend to be more careful where you put your head. Unfortunately, that’s not always possible on a motorcycle, so those of us with any brains worth saving prefer to wear helmets to ride.   Justin

  • I find myself too close to this discussion, for I have already suffered falling off a ladder 14` up and landing on my head, cracking my skull in 2 places, among other injuries.

    Luckily, with the help of many experts on head injuries, I’ve gotten most my vocabulary back but am now totally disabled from working for reasons that part of my brain is still damaged and can’t be improved to levels that would allow me to still work.

    My head injury happened in Jan./`93. That year I was working with a Neurosurgeon who told me I had to sell all my MCs because there’s no way I should ever ride them again since my brain is now so sensitive to a blow. He didn’t know what he was asking me to do. We got into an argument and I have still ridden bikes(took me over 2 years to be able to do it again) to this day.

    Back in `01 I had to lay our MC/trailer down when a big PU truck turned left in front of us near Lake Tahoe. Though we were going only 35 mph, I went down frontally(luckily had my full coverage Nolan helmet on) and I was unconscious until some time in the ambulance that took me to the closest hospital. I finally came to and have had the same mental(partial) abilities after the accident I had before.

    Since my head injury I don’t watch any football or boxing any more because the participants have no idea how delicate their brain is in their skull. I liken your brain to a yellow yoke in an egg as a visual reference. I can’t bare to see people abuse their head/brain on purpose.

    I plan to ride ’till I die(1 way or another). That is how important riding is to me. But I also know I’m on borrowed time. I was told most people who survive a head injury like me end up with Alzheimer’s. So be it.   Randy

  • A big part of the problem in football is players use their helmet to
    deliver a hit. I doubt that anything practical can be done to
    completely eliminate concussions in football, or motorcycling; but in
    football the concussive hits could be reduced by putting shock
    absorptive layers on the outside of the helmets. In the past some
    players with special problems have worn helmets like this. The layer
    would need to be quickly replaceable because it would get crushed and
    dinged pretty quickly (particularly on running backs and linebackers) so
    for some players it would have to be replaced between every series of downs.

    But there’s no advantage for an outer shock absorbing layer on a
    motorcycle helmet. You’re not likely to hit someone else with your
    helmet. If you need more cushion it should be on the inside. And there
    would be a big disadvantage to cushioning on the outside of a MC helmet,
    it would increase friction between the helmet and things it hits. You
    want the helmet to slide over surfaces, not catch and wrench your neck.   Brent

  • I played football all through middle and high school. Positions ranged from halfback, defensive back to line backer. Suffered a severe blow to the head once when tackling a full back and got kicked in the head while doing so. I even raced bmx for several years using both composite and plastic helmets. Later in life I started riding motorcycles and have been for the past 12 yrs. I always wondered why the motorcycle helmet industry never implemented football helmet technology. Especially when Snell has always claimed the special need of multiple impact capability for motorcycle helmets. The standard modern football helmet is constructed of a polymer alloy w/ elastomeric foam padding. A complete football helmet w/ facemask is amazingly light and probably close to current motorcycle helmet weights. In the end, if the motorcycle industry adopted the injection molded processes their fabrication costs will reduce significantly. I’m anxious to see the evolution!   Jud
  • I’m no expert, but I’ll bet that better MC helmet designs come from racing or military aviation, not football. Though football and motorcycle helmets have the same goal of protecting the brain, the mission is very different. Football helmets collide with grass, bodies and other helmets. Motorcycle helmets often meet trees, rocks and asphalt. The biggest difference though is that a motorcycle helmet is designed to protect our gray matter for one – and only one – crash after which it’s protective qualities are destroyed. We throw the helmet away and get a new one. A football helmet must endure repeat collisions without compromising the quality of the shock-absorbing and force distribution capabilities. Though they protect well against high-impact blows, a football helmet’s greatest weakness currently is its ability to protect against the cumulative effects of repeated “soft blows” over time; and coming developments will be focused on these lower energy impacts by offering variable-rate “spring” materials or devices.

    I don’t normally jump head-first off of my motorcycle in a repeated fashion, so it is less important for a motorcycle helmet to protect against repeated, less dramatic impacts. Though motorcycle helmets could also potentially benefit from variable-rate deceleration to improve safety during less dramatic crashes, the challenge will be getting such materials and/or devices into helmets while keeping them light and small and not compromising the protection from the extreme force (both initial and average) of a crash. And current helmets already defend quite well at lower speeds anyway. It will be interesting to see if such technology would work better than what is currently available in motorcycle helmets.

    Perhaps recreational ATV and dirt bike applications could be the first implementation of “football” tech as it would be handy to have a helmet that can repeatedly survive a fall from your tailgate or several unplanned encounters with the ground. The potential speeds for recreational OHV riders are generally lower and the things to hit are generally softer than what a typical street rider must be prepared for.   Jeremy

  • Football helmets until recently hadn’t changed for years and were pretty much the same as when I played. Any research on this issue would be positive. I suspect that Motorcycle helmets are more advanced but I could be wrong. Just to stir the pot a bit. It is interesting that folks who ride a motorcycle without a helmet would never think about playing football without a helmet. But because of the high velocities and forces involved the consequences of injury of riding without a helmet are more devastating. Keep in mind energy increases with the square of the velocity and that energy has to go somewhere i.e. your head.   K. Paul
  • With the mentality that most V-tin riders have, most of them are already have seriously damaged brains beyond comprehension, in their belief that helmet laws suck.
    Why would you think that you should save them from further harm?

  • Current motorcycle helmet technology is light-years ahead of the football helmet technology. In order to make them very light and manageable, football helmets have very thin padding with little shock absorbing characteristics

    What the NFL should do is contact the current motorcycle helmet manufacturers for an immediate and effective new football helmet. I don’t see why they would have to look anywhere else?   Jaime

  • I’m no expert on helmet technology, but I know that the environment
    and intended functions of a football helmet and a motorcycle helmet
    are vastly different. A football helmet has to be able to sustain many
    (hundreds?) of relatively low velocity impacts whereas a motorcycle
    (or bicycle) helmet is designed for one or two high velocity impacts
    before being useless. The football helmet is certainly a unique helmet
    since it’s one of the few that has to work at dissipating impacts over
    an extended period time. I have trouble thinking about a single other
    helmet which is not designed for just a one-time use (except a
    construction worker helmet which I imagine can take abuse up to a
    certain threshold and still be fully usable).

    That said, if there’s new technology, especially in the type of
    materials used or the manner in which they’re arranged, that can be
    used across many different helmets applications then that would be
    great! Certainly medical science is progressing at understand and
    diagnosing the effects of impacts on the brain (at the cost of the
    athlete’s quality of life). Maybe the real progress for motorcyclists
    will not necessarily be in helmet design, but instead in the cure and
    care of those who suffer impacts to the head.   Sid

  • I don’t know who would beneifit more, the motorcycle or the football helmet manufactures. You would think that the motorcycle helmets would have better technology in them rather than a football helmet. However, if Shoei and Arai started making football helmets we would have to pay more to go see the games so that the teams can afford them.   Chris
  • Ok the type of impacts are different so it makes quite unfair to compair, but I am sure a motorcyclist, snowboard or ski helmets are way more protective than football shell, NFL should consider adopting 3 or 4 laywers of density and some more of those technology into their gear, including neck protection…

    I remember seen during the G8 protests in Genoa/Italy on the early 2000, some punks wearing moto gear to confront the police… I do not think things could get worse than that…. the 2 wheels industry has lot to contribue with football…. the only obstacle I see might be the lack of ventilation and “over head heat”…. but it woth wearing.   Fernando

  • While I can’t claim any expertise, some things are glaringly obvious. When comparing the needs of the NFL player and the needs of the average motorcycle rider there are similarities and differences. Of course one similarity and the most obvious to me is the basic job itself. Protect the brain by absorbing the force of impact while imparting as little as possible of that force to the head. The obvious difference is that the NFL player needs this protection 20, 30, 50 times in three hours.

    While motorcycle helmet design and protection level is quite good and steadily improving, the helmet dies doing its job. A design imperative for the NFL (probably) is that the helmet lives on to do the job over and over. Can you see the helmet replacement time-out between each play? Motorcyclists have accepted or have been trained to accept the death of the helmet and it hasn’t been a huge problem because a get-off is a relatively rare event, plus the tendency of asphalt to ruin a helmet cosmetically, even if the guts were still serviceable.

    The trick I suppose is to mimic the protective qualities of the motorcycle helmet in a design that is reusable. That is, providing that the capability of the current motorcycle helmet would prevent a large proportion of football injuries. I don’t have a feel for the energy-imparted component of a bike accident vs. a football collision but my gut tells me they are probably similar in general with the motorcycle helmet asked to do more at the extremes. Perhaps this is possible, perhaps not. Perhaps we may just have to accept the limitations of the subject, the human head, and educate the NFL players such that they are more careful with it.   Bill

  • I absolutely think this is a good idea. Football helmet research has gone places that motorcycle helmet research isn’t able to go due to changing times and legislation. Remember the elevator shaft testing with “real” heads? And since football helmets must be able to protect from collisions thousands of times over a season, to draw from this experience may prove valuable. As most crashes happen at 6 ft or less (it’s the vertical fall, not the forward progress that we need the most protection from most often) this could lead to technologies that will be safer for riders in impacts of lower G forces and multiple hits like in a tumble.   Bob
  • First, an analogy. Think of those pictures that you see following a passenger train collision. All the passenger cars are piled here and there and look perfectly undamaged except for being on their sides. Then the announcer says that 20 people were killed. Well, the train cars are your helmet, and the dead people, having been tossed about inside, are your brains.

    Now to the helmets themselves. Innovation in M/C helmets was set in motion by the groundbreaking article done Dexter Ford in Motorcyclist Magazine back in June 2005. The article set off a raging debate about just what a helmet should do and be as it relates to injuries to motorcycle riders. It pitted Motorcyclist Magazine and Mr. Ford against the accepted standard of the Snell Foundation.

    The short version: Snell posited that the helmet shell should withstand any penetration and that one size of helmet tested could be generalized to all helmet sizes vs. Mr. Ford and Dr. Harry Hurt of the Hurt Report on the side of softer shells and sizing helmets by head size and weight suitable to the user. By 2005 virtually every other standard in the world (European, DOT, etc.) reflected the softer (both DOT and European), multiple size/weight (European) approach. The Motorcyclist testing showed why.

    (It might be useful for riders newer to this discussion to have a link to the Motorcyclist piece as background.)

    As a survivor of two head injuries, one motorcycle, one bicycle, both helmeted, I immediately bought one of the helmets scoring highly in the Motorcyclist testing. Since then, I have recommended similar helmets to my friends.

    I should add that when attempting to purchase a non-Snell decaled helmet in 2005 I was treated as if I was an uninformed boob new to cycling (40 plus years). Salespeople, even when given the opportunity to read and absorb the Motorcyclist testing results, simply could not accept that Snell was wrong. I finally bought a helmet on-line.

    The good news is that Snell has adopted a new standard (M2010) that is just now coming on the market. It reflects the best current thinking in head injury science. If you are looking to buy a Snell approved helmet, I strongly encourage you to purchase only those helmets with the M2010 label. Or, look for a DOT or European approved helmet without it.

    And remember, the shiny side isn’t always up.   Ed

  • Wouldn’t the two different helmets be totally different designs due to the fact that a football helmet is designed to take multiple impacts as opposed to a motorcycle helmet taking one? I don’t see how they can be compared at this point. If some day they can be, that would be great!   James
  • I should think the “information flow” would be the other way. Motorcycle helmets are already, by government, consumer & insurance company demand, far & away better designed to prevent impact injuries. I’ve never quite understood why this is, especially given what it is a helmet is designed to protect. Does it not make sense to apply good design in object A to object B if it applies directly to the same principles? Comfort and safety are, or should be, universally applied to safety gear of all types in all applications … not just a few.   Dave
  • Finally, something useful will come out of football.   Larry
  • Collisions in football happen at speeds that can be comparable to “in
    city” accidents. I think collisions where vehicle speeds are below 50
    should be very survivable for a motorcycle rider. At highway speeds
    sometimes it doesn’t matter how good the helmet is when every bone in
    your body gets broken. So in lower speed accidents some research and
    development dollars could help. Maybe even some improvement in other
    areas such as motorcycle body armor designs. For example, a football
    players shoulder pads are tied together, where as a motorcycle
    rider’s shoulder pads are tied together only by the jacket material
    they are encased in. I’ve seen jackets where someone took a hard hit
    to a shoulder and the pad stayed in place but the shoulder was torn
    from the jacket. Tying the shoulder pads together, thereby
    distributing the force of a blow to one shoulder might help to
    minimize the impact on that shoulder?? Long story short football is
    always going to have dollars to spend, why shouldn’t someone else
    benefit.   Bob

  • I applaud the research. I hate wearing one but if we have to wear it then it should be the best piece possible. I recently moved up from my fake 1/2 helmet to a real DOT 1/2 helmet. Its a bit large still but I accidentally found a reason to wear it other than safety. The foam is insulation and my head inside a black helmet doesn’t get near as hot on summer days now!
  • If it applies and is relevant then I’m all for it. Helmet design and safety has come a long way already and as long as comfort is preserved then I say go!   Rick
  • Help motorcycle helmets? Probably not. Motorcycle helmets are designed to aid the rider in one collision between the head and another hard object. Football helmets must withstand hundreds of collisions per game. If anything it would be the other way around with motorcycle helmets leading to better football helmets.   Craig
  • I doubt you will find the improvements in football helmets to prevent concussions carrying over to motorcycle helmet design. The primary reason is the use of the helmets themselves. Football helmets are design to take many relatively light impacts (compared to a motorcycle helmet). Motorcycle helmets, on the other hand, are design to be able to handle higher impact loads….once. Additionally, the goals of the helmets are different. In football, limiting concussions is important. While that’s nice for a motorcycle helmet, it’s not the primary goal. If you slide off the road and bounce your head off a tree and only walk away with a concussion, the helmet did its job. Besides having some of the same shell materials in common, there is basically nothing the construction of a football helmet has in common with a motorcycle helmet.   Justin
  • First off, thanks for the great site, I visit daily, like I’m supposed to…
    Secondly, having bounced off an Escalade @ around 45mph, I don’t think I would’ve rather had on my High School football helmet instead… Nor would I have liked to run full speed into a kickoff return wedge with an Arai strapped on… I think maybe the durability of a football helmet outweighs the once and done usage of a motorcycle helmet… just my $.02.   Joey

  • I think it’s great that there is interest in improving the safety of motorcycle helmets based on the injuries sustained in football games. The more important issue is, however, that no football player from pee-wee leagues, to high school, college, and up to the NFL is allowed to play without a helmet- yet in many states motorcyclists can ride unprotected. Please explain how that makes any sense. In my opinion, riding without proper safety equipment shows a lack of basic competency that should be required for the operation of a motorcycle on public roads.   Peter
  • I think yes, it could lead to improved MC helmet design. However, it seems like football impacts occur often, and possibly with less force. But anything that brings attention to helmet safety is a good thing in my opinion.   Alan