Standards Group Needs More Time to Answer Helmet Safety Questions

January 27, 2011

There were discussions about finite modeling, drop heights and linear impacts. Metabolic injury rates were a part of it, even a spare algorithm or two.

What was missing was an answer, at least for now.

Tasked with creating stiffer helmet standards to help prevent the rash of concussions in football, board members from the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment said last week that they need more time and research before coming up with anything concrete.

“We have a lot of information,” said Dave Halstead, technical director for NOCSAE. “We just don’t know what to do next.”

Concussions have become a hot-button issue in recent years as doctors have gained a better understanding of the symptoms and long-term effects.

The NFL has been the flash point of the discussion with all those hard hits causing potentially devastating health issues down the road.

The league has tried to curb some of the concussions by changing the headhunting mentality of its players, instituting fines and suspensions for anyone who leads with their helmet or hits anyone in the head.

Congress also has stepped in, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and Federal Trade Commission have been asked to investigate, and researchers have poured over data to figure out how to slow this problem.

The NOCSAE sets the standards for football helmet safety, along with baselines for numerous other sports, and has been working toward finding a better way to protect players from concussions.

They don’t have any exact answers so far. It’s too early in the process, the depth of the research not sufficient to know for certain something is going to work without potentially causing other, more catastrophic injuries.

So, for now, the plan is to fund more research to get a better understanding what’s going on before trying to fix it.

That’s not what everyone wants to hear, but that’s the only way NOCSAE board members believe they can approach it.

“There’s more that can be done, but we have to have the science first,” said Mike Oliver, NOCSAE’s executive director and general counsel. “One of the constraints for any standard, particularly in protective equipment, is there are solutions to problems where you follow those solutions they create other problems. We have to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

One issue that’s been tough to figure out has been rotational acceleration.

Doctors believed for years that linear contact was the cause of most concussions, the direct hit to the head slamming the brain back and forth against the skull producing the damage. They knew the brain rotated inside the brain with the contact, but believed that if they managed the linear part it would take care of the rotational aspect.

In recent years, though, doctors have found that the rotational and linear accelerations are separate issues; a concussion can still be caused by minimal direct impact if the rotational acceleration is great enough.

During his presentation, Halstead showed two videos of Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten taking hard hits. In the first, Witten took a direct hit to the side of the head, had his helmet fly off and kept running down the field, apparently uninjured. In the second, Witten was jarred between two defenders, rattling his head back and forth but with no direct contact, a play that left him woozy and wandering to the opposing team’s sideline because of the rotational acceleration.

The problem for the doctors and scientists is figuring out just how much of this acceleration the brain can take.

There are computer projections — those finite models — but the brain is so complicated, each neuron almost a separately-operating entity, that they don’t know for sure how much torque it can take. And, being an analytical, results-based group, they’re not going to move forward with any type of recommendations.

“We simply cannot change the standard without the scientific data,” said Dr. Robert Cantu, NOCSAE vice president and senior adviser to the NFL’s head, neck and spine medical committee.

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