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Newer Not Necessarily Better for Football Helmet Design

FRIDAY, Nov. 4 (HealthDay News) -- "Leatherhead" football helmets from the early 1900s can be as protective as modern helmets, a new study reports, but no one is suggesting a return to the vintage headgear.

Instead, the researchers said their findings point to the need for improvements in modern helmets and testing standards.

The Cleveland Clinic research team conducted lab tests to compare head injury risks of two leatherhead helmets with 11 leading modern polycarbonate football helmets. The results showed that the vintage helmets were often as effective as the modern helmets in protecting against injuries in common, game-like hits, and sometimes even better.

"The point of this study is not to advocate for a return to leather helmets but, rather, to test the notion that modern helmets must be more protective than older helmets simply because 'newer must be better,'" lead researcher Adam Bartsch, director of the Spine Research Lab in Cleveland Clinic's Center for Spine Health, said in a clinic news release.

"Unlike cars, in which seat belts, airbags and crumple zones make the choice between a 1920s Model T and modern mini-van a no-brainer, these results tell us that modern helmets have ample room to improve safety against many typical game-like hits," he added.

The study was published in the Nov. 4 online edition of the Journal of Neurosurgery.

Head and neck injuries among football players declined significantly after helmet standards and rule changes were introduced in the 1970s and 1980s, but concussion rates have continued to rise. Up to 40 percent of football players suffer a concussion each year, and more than half of them go unreported, the study authors noted in the news release.

The researchers pointed out that current helmet safety standards focus solely on the risk of severe skull fracture and catastrophic brain injury, not concussion risk.

"Today's safety standards are no longer state-of-the-art predictors of injury," Dr. Edward Benzel, chair of Cleveland Clinic's Department of Neurological Surgery, said in the news release.

"Of course, preventing skull fractures is vitally important, but concussion prevention needs to be an integral part of the standards as well. Also, helmets need to protect against the cumulative effects of multiple lower impact blows that may not lead to a concussion immediately but may add up to cause severe long-term head, neck or brain injuries," Benzel added.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about concussion.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: Cleveland Clinic, news release, Nov. 4, 2011

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