January 17, 2014. At its semi-annual meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) board of directors accepted results from several important NOCSAE-funded research projects which expand the scientific knowledge regarding sports-related brain injuries as part of an ongoing effort to increase the safety of athletes through the development of new helmet standards.
Understanding forces causing concussion
The research projects included identifying brain tissue response from a concussive event using new MRI techniques, development of a new method to test helmets for forces known to cause concussions and understanding how traumatic brain injuries can occur during low impact hits to the head.
"Science has been unable to provide a specific measurement of the complex forces and severity required to cause a concussion, making it impossible to design equipment to eliminate this type of injury," said NOCSAE Executive Director Mike Oliver. "While it is unlikely the concussion risk can ever be eliminated from sports, this research has brought us closer to the development of helmet standards that can better address some of the forces associated with concussions."
Compliance with current helmet safety standards requires helmets to pass tests involving multiple linear impacts, delivered in varying conditions, locations and strengths. To pass the test the helmet must significantly reduce the likelihood of skull fracture type injuries. Research presented by Dr. Blaine Hoshizaki, Professor at the University of Ottawa, considered a testing method which evaluates a helmet's performance in attenuating rotational forces, which, combined with linear forces, is associated with concussion-type injuries.
Research presented by Dr. Rick Greenwald, Associate Professor at Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College, provided a better understanding of the specific level and type of forces necessary to cause a sports-related concussion. The identification of these levels could be used in combination with new testing methods to aid in the development of helmet designs attempting to reduce concussion-related forces.
"Drs. Hoshizaki's and Greenwald's research will prove to be an important step in driving innovation in new helmet technology and improving equipment safety" said Oliver. "NOCSAE will now review the research to identify opportunities to update the existing helmet safety standards for several sports."
Are lighter helmets a solution?
Research presented by Dave Halstead, Laboratory Director of the University of Tennessee Sports Biomechanics Impact Research Lab, provides insight as to why significant concussive injury can occur during minimal linear impacts. Bicycle, football and hockey helmets were put through a combination of low level impacts and high rotational forces, to re-create the type of hits often seen in contact sports.
In all the helmets tested, including helmets that significantly reduced the severity of linear impacts, there was enough stress inside the helmet to result in forces being transmitted to the brain of the kind associated with injury. Halstead's research suggested that lighter helmets might provide more benefits in reducing concussion-related forces than adding more equipment to the helmet.
"This research helps to clarify that no equipment can fully protect athletes from a concussion, and provides insight as to the development of a concussion component to helmet standards" said Oliver.
"This research has brought us to a greater understanding of the science behind sport-related concussions, but more work is necessary to make sports safer for athletes. NOCSAE is committed to making further investments into concussion-related research, in the hope it can continue to improve the helmet safety standards," said Oliver.