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Protection from Head Injuries Without Helmets

If you have been following any recent news stories concerning football and the dangers of concussions, you know that many former NFL players have not only filed lawsuits related to traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), but numerous deceased athletes have also been diagnosed with a degenerative disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Given the increasingly available information about the hazards of contact sports and the risks of sports-related concussions, athletic programs across the country—from youth and high school football leagues to professional teams—have developed protocols related to head trauma. But are these protocols the most likely avenues to prevent brain injuries and life-long disabilities?

According to a recent article in The New York Times, “a counterintuitive new study of a successful Division I football program” suggests that, “to protect the heads of football players, it might be advisable to have them occasionally practice without head protection.”

Dangers of Repeated Hits to the Head

As the article emphasizes, head impacts happen quite often in football—both in practices and in games. Some studies estimate that “high school and college football players sustain 1,000 or more impacts to the head during a typical season,” and even younger players can suffer concussions, too. And while researchers cannot with certainty predict the long-term effects of mild traumatic brain injuries in every case, they do know that deceased players with confirmed CTE suffered multiple concussions.

For example, a recent study published in JAMA Neurology indicated that a former college football player’s brain “showed signs of severe and widespread CTE.” He died at the age of 25 and had suffered “at least 10 concussions over his playing career.”

Given the serious dangers associated with repeated hits to the head, researchers across many different fields have started looking into ways of preventing concussions and their devastating effects. In general, the article suggests, most efforts have focused on helmet prevention and thinking about ways to make safety gear that is more effective. However, a researcher in the University of New Hampshire’s Department of Kinesiology had a different idea: what if football players sometimes practiced without helmets? In short, the researcher, Dr. Erik Swartz, wondered if playing without head protection would encourage less harmful tackles by other players (since they would be thinking about the lack of head protection).

Can Playing Without a Helmet Reduce Sports-Related Concussions?

The question of whether playing without a helmet might reduce sports-related concussions might at first sound like a joke. Yet Dr. Swartz and his research team were very serious when they began looking at whether a “helmetless tackling program” actually could limit head injuries. Swartz began with the notion that, “in the 1950s and ‘60s, after a hard shell was applied, head and neck injuries increased, in part because players began spearing with their heads while tackling, believing the hardened helmets would keep them safe.” With his team of researchers, Swartz decided to look at the inverse.

Given that Swartz had been a rugby player in college—a contact sport in which players do not wear helmets but relatively few players suffer brain injuries—he believed that a helmetless tackling program might make a difference. To test his theory, half of the University of New Hampshire football players took the field without helmets during the 2014 preseason, and they continued practicing once a week without their helmets during the regular season.

The outcome was this: “as the season progressed, the players who occasionally practiced without helmets began to experience considerably fewer blows to their heads,” the article reports. And by the time the season had come to an end, those players “were hitting their heads about 30 percent less often in any given game or practice than the players who never took their helmets off during drills.” While Swartz and his team believe there is more research to be done, their findings suggest that helmetless tackling may show promise for preventing TBIs in the future.

Contact a Philadelphia Brain Injury Lawyer

Sports-related brain injuries are a serious problem. If you or someone you love suffered a concussion, you should discuss your options with an experienced Philadelphia brain injury lawyer as soon as possible. Contact Cohen Placitella & Roth, P.C. to learn more about our services.

Contact us for your consultation (215) 567-3500