Traumatic brain injury prevention: Do helmets help or harm athletes?

brain injuiryMost parents breathe a sigh of relief when their athletic child selects a sport that requires them to wear a helmet as part of their uniform. Helmets, however, indicate something else: That blows to the head are a common occurrence in that sport of choice, so protection is necessary. And with such a focus on traumatic brain injuries of late, particularly in high school sports, every parent and every athlete has reason to worry about safety.

Focus on girls lacrosse

More girls’ lacrosse teams are adding protective headgear built especially for girls, thanks to a widening availability of this equipment. But the argument has long been that if girls wear headgear, they will be encouraged to play lacrosse more aggressively. Soon enough, girls’ lacrosse could become a full-contact sport like boys’ lacrosse, where helmets are required. Even though the rules of girls’ lacrosse are very different than the rules of boys’ lacrosse, there are still a substantial number of head injuries – not just caused by collisions on the field, but by lacrosse sticks, and the lacrosse ball.

Isn’t it better to be safe than sorry and wear the headgear if it’s available? Parents and athletes alike can feel a bit calmer in the presence of a hard-shell helmet. After all, girls’ lacrosse has the fifth-highest rate of concussions in high school sports, behind football, ice hockey, boys’ lacrosse and girls’ soccer. But even when a helmet is firmly in place, there is no guarantee that it will prevent a concussion from occurring. Technique, early research is showing, may be more influential in reducing the number of concussions in sports.

The no-helmet experiment

A helmet experiment conducted at the University of New Hampshire began as an effort to reduce the frequency and intensity of head injuries, particularly in football but other sports as well. The football team was split into two groups, one of which did not wear helmets for two practices per week and then one practice per week. In an effort to reduce head impacts, the helmetless practices focused on proper tackling technique and no spearing with the head.

All of the team members wore sensor-equipped helmets which tracked the number of impacts they took and the intensity of the impacts. While at the start of the season the head impacts were comparable in both the helmet-training group and the helmetless group, as the weeks went on the players who practiced without a helmet experienced fewer blows to the head. By the end of the season, they hit their heads close to 30 percent less often than the players who never removed their helmets.

Learning how to play football and tackle properly, without involving your “protected” head, seems to make all the difference in who suffers head injuries and who does not. Technique, it would seem absolutely influences a person’s likelihood of getting a head injury or not.

While the New Hampshire researchers stress that their study is preliminary and small, it offers hope to athletes, coaches, and parents. And it sheds light on the importance of teaching not just aggression in helmet sports, but a smart and safe approach to play.

About: David Christensen is a brain injury attorney at Christensen Law in Southfield, Michigan. He helps victims with traumatic brain injuries receive compensation and benefits after an accident.