During the National Football League’s (NFL) 2015 season, including preseason and playoffs, a total of 271 player concussions were diagnosed, an increase of 32 percent over the NFL’s 2014 diagnosed concussion totals. In regular season games alone, diagnosed concussions rose by 58 percent up to 182 diagnoses, the highest such number in four years according to reports from ESPN. Of those regular season concussions 92 were caused by contact with another helmet.
It seems reasonable to suspect that new concussion protocols, which are heightened screening measures adopted by the NFL for in-game evaluation of players potentially suffering a head trauma, are at least part of the reason why the number of diagnosed concussions rose so significantly. It seems equally clear, however, that football players are regularly suffering a great deal of brain trauma. The long term effects of that brain trauma is at best uncertain and at worse potentially very frightening.
Without more effective protective measures against concussions, football players are at a heightened risk of developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE as it is known. CTE affects those who have a history of repetitive brain trauma including subconcussive hits to the head, which don’t result in concussion symptoms. This repetitive trauma can cause a progressive degradation of brain tissues leading to impaired judgment, issues in controlling impulses, and dementia. In September 2015, a joint study conducted by Boston University and the Department for Veterans Affairs found that of 91 samples of brain tissue from NFL players, there were 87 samples testing positive for CTE.
There is no doubt that there are many football players who live long, productive and completely normal lives after leaving the gridiron. Those brains tested for CTE were likely donated by players and players families because they had some reason to know that something was wrong and suspected a problem, which in 87 out of 91 cases proved correct. Given that there is currently no known test for CTE in a living brain an open ended question remains about how many football players have developed, or will develop, CTE.
As the debilitating effects of repeated concussions become better understood, the problem may become a much greater financial hurdle for the NFL in years to come. Along with a $1 billion NFL settlement for concussion lawsuits, upheld by a federal appeals court this past April, recent news reports indicate that insurance giant AIG announced in June that it would cease its coverage against head injuries suffered by NFL players, although it would still insure against non-brain-related injuries.
Mechanics of a Helmet (and a brain injury)
When designing a helmet to protect the head of the wearer the goal is simple enough: reduce brain injuries. But that is where the simplicity of helmet design ends.
“Brain injuries occur when the brain rattles within the cerebrospinal fluid inside the skull, often caused by rapid acceleration or deceleration,” explained Laith Abu-Taleb, a patent attorney with Finnegan Henderson in Washington, DC. Prior to joining Finnegan, Abu-Taleb, who holds a masters degree in bioengineering, founded a company to research novel solutions to preventing concussions in NFL, NCAA and high school football. “Think of it as an ice cube floating in a glass of water. You move the glass too fast, the ice cube is bound to hit the sides of the glass. If you move it slowly, you have more of a chance for the cerebrospinal fluid, or water, in our example, to protect the brain before impacting the side of the container.”
According to Abu-Taleb, the way helmets are designed, either with hard plastic or light metals, “mainly serve the purpose of protected the player from blunt impact. The inner part of the helmet is usually made up of a softer, foam-based material, which enables the helmet to absorb as much force from the blunt impact as possible.”
Helmets today are reasonably good at protecting from blunt impact, but that does not mean they do not suffer from serious problems. “A major weakness in helmets is that they do not protect from any twisting or torsion motion, for example when a wearer suffers an impact that forces his neck to rotate at a substantial speed,” Abu-Taleb explains. “This is a major cause of concussions, as the brain rattles within the cerebrospinal fluid inside the skull as soon as the rotating comes to a stop, causing multiple potential points of impact between the brain and skull.”
For many all of this means you just need a harder, more unbreakable helmet. But that would be a serious mistake. The harder and more unbreakable the helmet the better it is to protect from a cosmetic standpoint, but the more likely the helmet will transfer the power of any blow through to the brain. In what will strike many as odd, the softer and more malleable the material the more protection it will offer the wearers brain. But again, designing a helmet that would transfer the power through the helmet and not to the head and ultimately the brain is much easier said than done.
“Cars have specific ‘crumple zones,’ which break and bend during crashes,” Abu-Taleb explains. “The breaking and bending of the car at certain places dampers the force before it reaches the actual cabin. Unfortunately, it’s much more difficult to design crumple zones for helmets, because you’re working with much less space. Ideally, you would have a large helmet with a 2-foot radius and airbags, but that wouldn’t really be practical.”
Better Equipment for Mitigating Concussions
There’s a strongly-held belief that, no matter how much time and money is invested into research and development, there will never be a helmet that is truly concussion-proof. Part of the issue, the prevailing opinion states, is that the physics involved in an accelerating force striking a head cannot be prevented; the force of impact has to go somewhere.
Not everyone is willing to say that the concussion problem is insurmountable. One such firm is a Seattle startup known as Vicis. This company has developed a flagship helmet product known as the Zero1 which has a deformable outer shell surrounding a hard plastic core and layers of memory foam. Brute force strikes on a wearer’s jaw is better dissipated through a series of four chin straps, two of which are connected to the inner plastic core. This April, tech news publication GeekWire reported that the company has earned close to $14 million in financing since opening operations two years ago and it plans to use those funds to increase production and commercialization of the Zero1. GeekWire also reported that 25 NFL teams and another 30 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) teams have expressed interest in evaluating the Zero1.
While many former NFL players have spoken out about the debilitating effects of concussions and CTE, at least one former player is applying ingenuity to the problem for coming up with a safer football helmet. Shawn Springs, a former cornerback playing for NFL’s Seattle and Washington teams, is the CEO and founder of helmet technology developer Windpact. Windpact’s helmet design incorporates what it calls Crash Cloud technology which involves a series of vents and springs producing self-recovering airbags. These airbags are designed to absorb the force of a hit and effectively disperse that force to minimize skull impacts during a tackle.
It’s not just the helmet worn by a player which can contribute to the reduction or prevention of concussions caused by high-impact contact between athletes. Westport, CT-based Q30 Innovations recently announced the results of studies on its Q-Collar product performed by researchers at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. The Q-Collar is a piece of athletic equipment worn around a player’s neck which puts pressure on the jugular vein to increase the amount of blood in the cranium, tightening the fit of the brain within the cranium and thereby reducing brain movement. Researchers found that local high school football players showed no significant alterations in their brain’s white matter over a course of the season when wearing the Q-Collar while those not wearing the athletic collar showed white matter activity consistent with brain damage; a study with similar results was carried out among hockey players.
What can players do?
One of the biggest problems facing the NFL isn’t just a need for better helmet technology, but also the need for players to stop using their head as a weapon. Leading with the head in order to injure other players or knock out the football places players at significant risk. That is why the NFL has spent considerable time and effort working on the Heads Up Football® initiative. In the meantime, until head-to-head contact is substantially limited from the game, better helmet technology will be a critical factor for survival of the game and for the survival of players.
Crumple zones, similar to those in cars, could also be employed to some extent at least in helmet technology, which could have an influencing impact on players. As AbuTaleb notes, “not only would crumple zones be able to reduce deceleration times, but the helmets would also enable players to better integrate impact management into his or her playing style by seeing the damage certain hits cause. This may be an incredibly expensive solution, though, as helmets would have to be switched out after every major hit.”
There is no doubt that helmet that would best protect the players head and brain would become unusable after a hit of sufficient magnitude, just as is the case with a motorcycle helmet. At some point, however, the NFL will be forced to ask themselves whether having the absolute best protection is desirable even if there is added cost.
“Other solutions being implemented include various sensors within the helmet to monitor the force and acceleration acting on the head. Real-time sideline wireless monitoring systems may help coaches and medical staff to pull players out after hits of a certain threshold, potentially before any concussion symptoms begin to present themselves,” Abu-Taleb explains. “The sensors also help players adapt by allowing them to determine best practices for various tackles and hits, changing their game-play to a safer and more effective means.”
NOTE: This article also appears in the August 2016 edition of Inventors Digest Magazine.