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An article in the NY Times explains how Vin Ferrara, a 34-year-old former Harvard quarterback, was looking for an aspirin, when his eyes fixed on a ribbed plastic bottle used to squirt saline into sinuses.
He squeezed the bottle. He pounded on it. The bottle cushioned soft and hard blows equally. It was almost intelligent.
“This is it,” he declared. Three years later, that squirt bottle has led to a promising new technology that will protect football players from concussions. Experts predict Ferrara has developed a radically effective design.
Studies have found that 10 to 50 percent of high school players sustain concussions each season. The effects of a concussion can range from persistent memory problems and depression to coma and death.
Over more than a century, football helmets have evolved from crude leather bonnets to face-masked, polycarbonate battering rams. But although manufacturers have tried, the current helmets often fail to protect the brain from the sudden forces that cause concussions.
Rather than being lined with rows of traditional foam or urethane, Ferrara’s helmet features 18 black, thermoplastic shock absorbers filled with air. These shock absorbers — not unlike his suirt bottle — can accept the wide range of forces and still moderate the sudden jarring of the head that causes concussion.
In addition, laboratory tests have shown that the disks can withstand hundreds of impacts without any noticeable degradation in performance, which had been a longtime drawback of traditional foam-filled helmets.
Dr. Robert Cantu of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, one of the nation’s leading experts in concussion management, called it “the greatest advance in helmet design in at least 30 years.”
Cantu imagines uses for the new technology beyond football. “In the military, you have helmets for pilots and ground troops. There’s ice-hocky boards and auto-race barriers. Anything that’s protective in nature, that’s used to attenuate energy, could be improved markedly.”
Dr. Gerry Gioia, a pediatric neuropsychologist who directs the concussion program at the Children’s Medical Center in Washington, states that Ferrara’s helmet could “take helmet protection to a whole new level.”
According to Gioia, “Foams have only had a certain amount of success in absorbing force. Think of what crumple zones in cars meant to reducing injuries. That’s the idea behind this technology — this does what it’s supposed to do better than any other.”
The helmet has not yet been tested by actual players in games. It passed certification tests conducted by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment earlier this month. The committee certifies helmet models worn by each of the more than 2 million football players in the US, from pee-wees to professionals.
Three high schools, which Ferrara declined to name because he had promised anonymity, will begin testing it in November. Meanwhile, Ferrara has begun presenting the helmet and its test results to groups of football decision-makers, including the athletic directos of the Big Ten Conference.
Barry Alvarez, the University of Wisconsin athletic director and former football coach, says, “It really caught my attention. Coaches and trainers should really see these things.”
The number of helmet manufacturers has decreased over two decade from more to half a dozen to three, partly due to liability concerns. Eighty-four percent of NFL players choose helmets made by Riddell, which also has an exclusive marketing agreement with the league.
The other two companies, Schutt and Adams, have far greater market shares on the high school and youth levels respectively. At these levels, exclusive arrangements within leagues are discouraged, because head sizes fit better in different brands.
Football hemets present the technical challenge of protecting against all kinds of blows to the head, and doing so thousands of times. Bicycle helmets, by contrast, are designed to withstand just one major, accidental impact.
Optimally, a helmet’s interior must be forgiving enough to cushion against a routine impact while also sturdy enough to withstand a potentially lethal one. Each level of force requires a different response from the material.
Mike Oliver, the certification agency’s executive director, strongly cautioned against comparing the new helmet’s test scores against older helmets, however. “Concussion is the big elephant in the room right now when it comes to helmets, and I’m cautiously optimistice at how low these numbers are. But you can test as much as you want, and we won’t really know until it’s tested in the field and we see how it performs.”
“You Can’t Put a Seat Belt on the Brain”
Ferrara shared Oliver’s caution and said that no helmet could prevent concussion — all it could do is decrease the chance for one. “You can’t put a seat belt on the brain,” he said.
Only about 20 percent of helmets in use by high schools at any one time are less than one year old; a vast majority are reconditioned every one to three years, as budgets permit. Reconditioned helmets are cleaned, receive new bolts and undergo random drop testing to the certification agency’s standards. But the process does little to address the foam padding that degrades over time and provides less protection against the lower- level impacts that cause concussion.
Horror stories regarding the use of deteriorated helmets are not uncommon. Six years ago, a high school player in Yachats, Oregon named Max Conradt was wearing a 20-year-old helmet when he sustained hits that left him comatose for two months and permanently impaired.
Dave Halstead, the certifying agency’s technical director, sayd he had seen helmets with padding replaced by athletic socks and with screw points exposed.
He estimates that half of the helmets in use at the high school level are either improperly reconditioned, have foam degredation or fit poorly. This leaves them susceptible to the lower-level forces that cause the majority of concussions.
(The agency does test hockey and lacrosse helmets at both high and low levels — an extra step that Halsted thinks his organization should strongly consider for football, as more data are collected on its effectiveness. )
Ferrara says he wants his new shock-absorber helmet design to be only one of seveal lines of defense against concussions. He is mindful that previous helmet improvements have sometimes led athletes to feel a false sense of security and take more risks.
He says part of his rollout plan would be to emphasize to players and coaches proper, head-up tackling technique, so that the helmet sees fewer dangerous hits to begin with. And to encourage athletes to admit when they think they might have a concussion.
“The educational side of it is just as important, if not more important, as the helmet itself.”
sole source: NY Times article by Alan Schwarz on October 27, 2007. www.nytimes.com
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