By Steve Cyphers
Dr. Gunnar Brolinson calls it “the last line of defense.” He’s referring to a football player’s helmet in the war against concussions. As the team doctor at Virginia Tech University, Brolinson knows the topic well. For ten years, Virginia Tech has researched how well the headgear produced by helmet manufacturers does its job, and Brolinson has seen all the data.
The research began with Dr. Stefan Duma, the department head of the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences. Using the HIT (helmet impact telemetry) system to measure the force behind each hit to the head, Duma says he’s collected two million such hits on the program’s database. The technology is sophisticated in design but simple to use. Six padded sensors line the inside of a player’s helmet and send the result of each blow to a computer on the sideline. Seven collegiate programs currently use the technology, and 150 players from the age of 6 to 17 are being monitored this fall.
Though Duma says all the research is available to helmet manufacturers, his group does not aid in the design of helmets. It simply measures how effective a helmet is in protecting a player’s brain. In 2011, Virginia Tech published its independent report, rating helmets from five stars (the best rating) to one star (the lowest rating). One helmet received no recommendation and, according to Duma, it wasn’t long before the company went out of business.
Manufacturers must be taking notice. Duma says helmets are getting better at protecting players. No helmet can eliminate the risk of injury, but Duma sees a safer game than he saw in 2003, “The past nine years, the players we’ve had in the older, lower performing helmets versus the better helmets – we reduced the risk (of concussion) by 85 percent.”