Surprisingly, in common, game-like hits, they are.
Old-fashioned "leatherhead" football helmets from the early 1900s are often as effective as -- and sometimes better than -- modern football helmets at protecting against injuries during routine, game-like collisions, according to Cleveland Clinic researchers.More studies are definitely needed and new modern designs to protect against concussions. The heads and brains of our athletes demand nothing less.
"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,'" said lead researcher Adam Bartsch, Ph.D., Director of the Spine Research Lab in Cleveland Clinic's Center for Spine Health. "Unlike cars, in which seat belts, airbags and crumple zones make the choice between a 1920's 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."
Though head and neck injuries were greatly reduced after football helmet standards and rule changes were instituted in 1970's and 1980's, the incidence of concussions have continued to increase. In fact, concussions are the leading cause of brain damage in sports, particularly in football. Estimates suggest that up to 40 percent of football players experience a concussion each year, with more than half of these going unreported.
Cleveland Clinic researchers note that helmet safety standards -- as measured by the Gadd Severity Index -- are based solely on the risk of severe skull fracture and catastrophic brain injury, not concussion risk. So, while modern helmets may prevent severe head injuries, this study found that they frequently did not provide superior protection in typical on-field impacts when compared to leather helmets.
"Today's safety standards are no longer state-of-the-art predictors of injury," said Edward Benzel, MD, Chair of Cleveland Clinic's Department of Neurological Surgery. "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."
The findings suggest that helmet testing should focus on both low- and high-energy impacts, not solely on potentially catastrophic high-energy impacts. This is especially true of youth football helmets, which are currently scaled-down versions of adult helmets. The lack of adequate knowledge surrounding adult helmet protectivity at low-energy impacts, as well as the current absence of any youth-specific helmet testing standards, may have serious brain health implications for the 3 million youths participating in tackle football in the United States each year.