Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

Football Concussions: Plastic Designs Attempt to Soften the Blow

x1 helmet
Photo courtesy of Xenith

Bone crunching tackles made by huge and fast athletes, graceful fingertip catches, surprising last-second upsets… It’s no wonder that football is the most popular sport in the United States.

The rise of personal computers and the Internet in the 1990s added to the football hysteria via the fantasy football craze in which fans participate in competitive online leagues, earning “fantasy points” based on the performance statistics of real pro football players. My friends and I end up rooting for yardage and scores for the National Football League (NFL)  players we have each selected in a “fantasy draft,” while conversely cheering for interceptions, fumbles, and minor game-day injuries for the players “owned” by our opponents.

Unfortunately, as of November 22, thirty-one NFL players had been listed on injury reports this season with concussions — including several marquee stars. Although this trend may be responsible for my current fantasy football losing streak, I am more concerned with the impact concussions have on NFL players.

While most players make a speedy recovery from immediate concussion symptoms (including memory loss, confusion, blurred vision and nausea), those who have multiple concussions or continue to play while suffering from one may be at risk of debilitating conditions later in life.  The recent rash of concussions has brought out news reports of former players — including Larry MorrisMike Webster and John Mackey – still tragically suffering from dementia and other symptoms. A recent Associated Press story found that nearly one out of five NFL players surveyed acknowledged that they have downplayed the effects of a concussion in order to get back out on the field.

I applaud the recent strides taken by the NFL to protect players and study this potentially deadly condition.  Obviously, making the NFL a two-hand touch sport is not realistic and violent collisions will always be part of the game.  So, improving the protection offered by football helmets is a place to start.

Plastics are at the forefront of new helmet designs that may reduce the number of concussions. Currently, most football helmets incorporate hard  polycarbonate shells lined with dense foam padding (either polyurethane, polystyrene, polypropylene, ethylene vinyl acetate or a combination). The design challenge is that helmets must be soft enough to cushion routine blows, hard enough to absorb helmet-to-helmet hits and strong enough to last through several weeks of use. As spotlighted recently in a Washington Post article, many experts think Xenith’s X1 helmet (pictured above) holds promise. Instead of traditional foam, the X1 incorporates an adjustable cap of 18 polyurethane discs. Each air- cushioned disc is hollow with a tiny hole at the top.  According to the article:

When a player wearing an X1 takes a relatively mild hit, the pressure forces air out of the pinholes, dispelling force by deflating the absorber until it’s as flat as a saucer. When the pressure is removed, the absorbers reinflate quickly… and the helmet is ready for the next impact. During a more violent collision… the higher level of force tries to displace the air more quickly than the pinhole can accommodate, thereby increasing the air pressure inside the absorber. That pressure stiffens the disk, offering skull protection much as traditional helmets do.

Another manufacturer, Riddell (which conducted a 2006 study with the University of Pittsburgh on helmets and concussions) has developed  the “Revolution Speed” helmet, which is  lined with synthetic rubber and polyurethane. In addition, some Riddell helmets can be accessorized with  the Head Impact Telemetry System(HITS) which incorporates sensors that send a wireless alert to a team’s trainer when a player absorbs a potentially dangerous hit.  Schutt, yet another manufacturer, designed its ION 4D helmet with a lining of  cushions made of thermoplastic urethane. (If you are a real geek for the technical details, this illustrated diagram and this Michigan sports blog discuss the latest helmet designs more thoroughly.

While plastics is doing its part, most coaches and trainers believe  teaching and employing proper tackling technique — keeping the head up and avoiding helmet-to-helmet collisions — is the best way to reduce football-related concussions.

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