Hits to the head can cause traumatic brain injuries (TBI). Such hits are extremely common in many contact sports, including football, placing the risks involved in play under close scrutiny in recent years.
Not many think about the consequences of head injuries on the field. Many are more interested in who was tackled and what the score is, even if there was headbutting along the way. Unfortunately, this lack of concern extends to current equipment design: football helmets are not sufficiently constructed to prevent traumatic brain injuries.
Currently, TBI occurs 1.7 million times per year in the U.S., and roughly 20 percent of cases are the direct result of athletic activity. Many of these head injuries also include concussions, a precursor to long-term brain damage. Thankfully, researchers are now examining standards for a better, safer helmet — one that can withstand both linear and rotational force, the two types of dynamic forces players experience during a football game.
Existing football helmets are designed to withstand linear force, but they neglect the impact rotational force can have. Linear hits are direct, centered, frontal hits that push the head straight backwards. Helmets can blunt linear force effects to a certain extent, but they do not accommodate for rotational hits, known to cause about 40 percent of today’s sporting head injuries.
Rotational hits happen because of the round shape of a helmet. Some frontal hits bounce off the helmet’s crown. Typically, those hits slide to the side with a shearing motion, shaking the brain in the process. This phenomenon may even occur after low-impact hits. A combination of these two types of hits can cause serious head injuries and long-term cognitive problems.
Researchers in Florida are hoping to create a helmet that offers two kinds of protective chambers to cushion the skull and help the brain remain stable when hit. The proposed design layers non-Newtonian and Newtonian fluids. Non-Newtonian fluids are typically gels. Newtonian fluids include air and water. Ideally, the two layers would work together to offer protective padding and to reduce impacts to the head by absorbing the energy of a hit and distributing it evenly across the helmet’s surface.
It’s a unique concept. One layer receives the force of a hit, which compresses the fluid in that layer. Because of that layer’s compression, the fluid expands through a tube to the next layer, which acts to neutralize the force. Once pressure is removed, the protective chambers rebound to their original states (meaning, among other things, that the helmets could be used repeatedly). The new design is effective in the lab, but wider testing needs to be performed in partnership with companies interested in producing the helmets.
These helmets may also have applications for athletes in other sports, firefighters, construction workers, motorcyclists, cyclists, skateboarders and soldiers. They should be as effective for children as for adults. The protective layers are designed to be inexpensive, and they may be produced to retrofit existing helmets.
These safety developments are exciting, especially when one considers that in 2013, NFL penalty statistics reveal that each football player sustained at least one illegal hit to the neck or head in virtually every game.