EDITORIAL: Impact-sensing helmets

Dec. 25–The mounting revelations about sports head injuries have created new interest in helmet design, including systems that can sense impacts that might cause concussions. The Capital News Service last week published two stories involving these new devices and the interest they have aroused in coaches, trainers, educators and physicians. Not ...

Dec. 25–The mounting revelations about sports head injuries have created new interest in helmet design, including systems that can sense impacts that might cause concussions.

The Capital News Service last week published two stories involving these new devices and the interest they have aroused in coaches, trainers, educators and physicians. Not everyone is sold on them, at least yet.

Concussions, especially in numbers over time, can have very serious consequences for athletes playing contact sports such as football and ice hockey. The concerns that initially revolved around professional football have now expanded to community youth leagues and school sports programs.

Riddell is a major manufacturer and supplier of helmets, so it’s no surprise that it has been busy trying to address the concussion issue. Riddell has already produced and is selling helmets with built-in impact sensors.

According to Erin Griffin, Riddell’s director of corporate communications, “Technology and sports go hand in hand. This is just the beginning of technological advancements and the helmet industry.”

According to CNS, “Riddell’s InSite Impact Response System can be calibrated to detect different levels of sensitivity and report impacts sustained by the helmet to trainers and coaches on the sidelines during practices and games.”

That kind of information, if accurate, could be a vital tool in assessing whether a player has suffered a potential concussion — something that otherwise might go unnoticed.

As with anything, cost is a consideration when it comes to helmet sensor systems. Bethesda-based Brain Sentry, Inc. offers a $75 retrofit sensor that attaches to a standard football helmet such as the popular $275 Riddell model. Riddell’s new sensor-equipped helmet adds $150 to the basic helmet’s price tag. The Alert monitor, which can cover about 200 players, costs an additional $200.

Price is not the only consideration for some coaches and trainers. The Maryland Athletic Trainers’ Association contested a bill that was introduced in last year’s session of the General Assembly. That bill, which died in committee, would have created a pilot program designed to introduce the technology to state high school sports programs.

“While they might provide us with help with medical diagnosis, right now the science just isn’t there. All the research says these things are not ready to be used in a diagnostic manner,” says Greg Panczek, president of the trainers association. Among his concerns is the potential for a “false negative” that leaves an injured player in the game because the sensor fails to report an injury-producing impact. Possibly, but we don’t think these sensors were ever envisioned as taking the place of existing protocols for detecting concussions, but rather as an additional tool toward that end.

We’re especially interested in the safety of our youngest athletes, whose fate is often in the hands of well-intentioned people, including coaches and parents, whose understanding of sports injuries and safety may be limited. Anything that can help protect kids from the effects of head injuries should get everyone’s attention. Helmet sensing systems have that potential, and their usefulness should be fully investigated in real-world athletic situations.

This new technology appears to be a textbook example of a work in progress, both in refining the devices themselves and in convincing potential users of their value. We expect advancements on both those fronts in coming years.

A pilot program such as the one the General Assembly considered, and rejected, last year would be a good place to continue the evaluation process.

We urge lawmakers to take this matter up again in the upcoming 2015 session in Annapolis — and sensor manufacturers to continue to improve both the effectiveness and affordability of these potentially game-changing safety devices.

Source: athletictrainers.org