American Football is one of the most well known sports anywhere in the world. Though, it is not played as much outside of the United States, professional football is recognized and supported by people everywhere. From that first paycheck to William “Pudge” Heffelfinger back in 1892 ($500 for a single game), football has evolved into one of the most profitable professional sports (1). In recent years, however, football has been under the microscope due to various studies that have shown the effects of years of trauma to the head. The term concussion, or traumatic brain injury, is now well recognized by many and football at all levels is learning to make changes that encourage player safety.
A concussion is trauma that occurs to the brain. Most commonly, a concussion will occur in sports or activities where there is contact to the head. Though the brain sits inside of a gelatin fluid substance called cerebrospinal fluid, the force can sometimes be so great that the brain makes impact with the protective skull (2). This impact can damage various regions of the brain and create both short and long-term consequences. Multiple concussions can eventually lead to permanent damage.
Next to education and technique, the most important safety measure that players have against a concussion is their helmet. The helmet is designed to be more than art work for the uniform. The holy grail for helmet manufacturers is a “concussion proof helmet(3).” However, due to the various causes of concussion, this is not possible. Helmet manufacturers are having to increase their research and testing efforts in order to find better ways to absorb linear and rotational impact forces.
Most current helmet designs consist of a rigid, polycarbonate shell with various layers of internal padding and shock absorption components designed to prevent skull fractures by reducing the peak force of an impact (4). The new trend in helmet research is to consider how “Impulse” is affected by helmet design. With funding from the National Football League and other organizations, the University of Michigan has come up with a new and relativley cheap material that shows significant promise in reducing this impulse affect. This material, Mitigatium, has shown to allow just 20% of the impulse and 30% of the peak pressure that current helmets allow through. This is accomplished by 3 layers working together. The first two layers, the outermost being similar to current helmet design, reflect most of the initial shock created by a collision. These two layers convert the frequency of the remaining pressure wave that the third layer can better dissipate thru vibration (4). The on-going research has shown much promise and the University of Michigan has received a $250,000 grant to turn this into a full prototype.
So, the next time you are watching a game in person or on television, know that inside of those helmets is technology that is ever changing. It is not simply a bladder of air that protects a player from as much as 1 ton of force. As helmet manufacturers learn more through their own as well as independent research, they will be able to better protect our athletes and the future success of the sport.