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Why Don’t Helmets Prevent Concussions?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Helmets protect your head—but they can’t fully protect your brain. This helps to explain why football players continue to incur brain trauma that may lead to debilitating brain disease.

Recently, a team of researchers presented more evidence of the devastating progression of a brain disease caused by repeated brain trauma. On December 2, researchers from Boston University, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and other institutions published findings in the journal Brain that document the changes caused by chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Over the course of this neurodegenerative disease, those afflicted experience symptoms ranging from headaches and difficulty concentrating in Stage 1, to the dementia and aggression of Stage 4. Repeated mild traumatic brain injuries such as concussions cause CTE, making the disease of special concern for athletes and military personnel.

The researchers posthumously analyzed samples from the brains of 85 subjects, including athletes and veterans, with a history of traumatic brain injuries. These samples revealed the disease’s progressive course through the brain, including the presence of tangled tau proteins, a marker of cognitive decline also associated with Alzheimer’s disease. In addition to documenting the disease’s pathology, the study bolsters the argument that head injuries sustained by athletes may contribute to this disease. Of the 85 subjects, the scientists identified 68 cases of CTE and 64 were in individuals who had played contact sports such as football or hockey.

But football and hockey players wear helmets—shouldn’t they protect players from the trauma of a head-on collision? As the video below from Yale University’s Ainissa Ramirez shows, helmets are designed to protect the skull—not the brain. The brain can be hurt as it smashes against the skull, causing a range of symptoms including headaches and loss of consciousness.

About the Author: Daisy Yuhas is an associate editor at Scientific American Mind. You can follow her on Twitter, @daisyyuhas

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. julianpenrod 8:41 pm 12/5/2012

    This criticizes “science”, so it may not be printed. During the Seventies and Eighties, extensive legislation was introduced to require children to wear helmets for everything from bike riding to skateboarding to roller blading to rollerskating. All based on a single incident of a freak accident in a century’s worth and tens of millions of children’s worth of use. Parents were called negligent if they ignored the 1 in 100 million at best chance that their child might be hurt. A cartoon of Marvel’s “Fantastic Four” had the rock hard Thing riding a motor scooter in a helmet, to avoid diluting the propaganda. Because that’s all it was. Crooked corporations bought legislators to pass laws requiring helmet and knee and elbow pad usage and co-opted corrupt “scientists” to provide “proof” they were urgently needed.
    Now, it’s demonstrated that the very thing helmets were supposed to protect against, they don’t. Shills will opine that helmet use in football is not the same as helmet use in riding a bike. But, among other things, the brain sloshes about without protection from the helmet whether the person is bike riding or playing football. And, frankly, any incident involving enough force to cause a concussion is just as serious whether it occurs while biking or playing football.
    If a helmet will not protect from force that can cause a concussion in football, it won’t protect from that force if experienced while biking.
    And, if that kind of force is not experienced while biking, then a helmet is not necessary!
    And, what important information undermining the “value” of vaccines is being withheld from the gullible public by corrupt “scientists” paid to shills for criminal drug companies?

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  2. 2. whalermeg 10:35 pm 12/5/2012

    Hi, It’s true that a helmet won’t prevent a concussion, nothing is going to stop the impact of your brain jostling around inside nature’s own helmet, your skull. However they are successful at preventing skull fractures, which was another intended purpose, and potentially more deadly than a concussion.

    Nice fantastic four reference!

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  3. 3. jtdwyer 2:36 am 12/6/2012

    Perhaps what’s really needed for contact sports is an energy absorbing helmet exterior, even if it required several inches of foam. It seems this approach would reduce the magnitude of impact suffered by the skull and brain…

    julianpenrod’s remarks about the effectiveness of those sporty bicyclist & child helmets warrants serious study (or at least a report in SA). Their protection seems to be mostly limited to bumps and bruises – what level of protection do they really provide, especially to our (soft skulled) children?

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  4. 4. sjfone 8:25 am 12/6/2012

    Don’t say it, “Ban football, ban contact sports.”. What about the sponsors, the revenue flow the tax-supported stadiums?
    There will be, however, a special exception for Roller Derby.

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  5. 5. outsidethebox 11:04 am 12/6/2012

    Current helmets are designed to do one thing. Spread out the force of impact from a point source to an area so large that the strength of the skull can handle the blow. To prevent concussion (the brain bouncing around in the skull) there is only one way to do it. And that is slow down (as opposed to spread out) the blow. Not an impossible task but a more difficult one. It is accomplished in automobiles by having a very large “crush zone”. You could do the same in helmets (to a lesser degree) by having a very large chrushable helmet. There are two problems with this. You can only have a helmet so large and still play the game. And as studies in this field have shown, more concussions occur in training than in games. They happen all the time. How are we going to afford helmets for all players that are crushed as often as they need to be?

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  6. 6. nanorat 1:24 pm 12/6/2012

    There is a more important issue not covered here. The skull protection provided by the helmet makes it also useful as a battering ram which can inflict crushing damage to both the tackler & the tacklee. It turns out that the old fashioned leather helmets of the 20′s & 30′s are “safer” than the modern day helmets. Proof of this is in the present day sport of rugby where no helmets are worn at all and they don’t seem to have the problem of debilitating concussions.

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  7. 7. jgrosay 3:23 pm 12/6/2012

    A “Non-perfect protection” is better than no protection at all, and dealing with things that may put those involved into lifetime ailments or disabilities, the wise approach would be the most conservative one, we all will die, but there are ugly and not so ugly ways of dying, the so called “Sweet death” never existed, every kind of death is a painful and severe humiliation, until we constate by ourselves that a good world exists after death, we must better be protectionists in the field.

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  8. 8. plswinford 3:34 pm 12/6/2012

    Somebody put 100 chicken eggs (suitably protected to keep the shells intact) into a paint-mixer equivalent, then see how well the chicks develop.

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  9. 9. Mendrys 4:17 pm 12/6/2012


    While I agree in some respects that current helmets do not prevent concussions your numbers are way off. First, the helmet laws were based on numerous incidents of skull fractures and the resulting debilitating injuries and deaths rather than just 1 freak accident. The chances are much greater than 1 in 100 million that you will be injured while riding a bike. In 2009 there were a little more than 600 deaths as a result of a bicycle accident. Of these, 91% were cyclists who were NOT wearing helmets while 9% of those deaths were by cyclists who were.

    Again, helmets do not prevent concussions to a large agree but the certainly do help prevent more serious accidents such as skull fractures.

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  10. 10. rock johny 8:39 pm 12/6/2012

    If someone could invent a self-repairing crushable material to use as helmet liners, they’d be a rich person! Let’s say a football player takes a vicious hit and his helmet slams the ground crushing this ‘material’. He would then shake the helmet until the material reorganized. This material would not crush unless it’s met with sufficient force. That would be ideal. I could imagine a player having to have the liner replaced several times during a game. I’ve brought this idea up before so not stealing the other commenter’s fire.

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  11. 11. julianpenrod 2:46 pm 12/7/2012

    The issue of “records” of injuries due to bike riding depends for its viability on trusting “scientists” not to be money grubbing liars. Thalidomide; fen-phen; Vioxx; psychological techniques to ensure purchase of products that don’t deserve purchase; the has guzzling, anti aerodynamic design of recent cars; not informing people of genetically modified foods to avoid “confusing” them, which means “revealing facts that can lead to Monsanto losing money”; the absence of banned weapons in Iraq, all are evidence that “scientists” cannot be trusted. Consider the attack on those who question the safety of vaccines. The “argument” is consistently and universally framed as “they insist that all vaccines cause autism because of mercury in vaccines’ formulation”. In fact, even those who are suspicious of vaccine programs don’t condemn all vaccines; they don’t say that they cause all autism; they warn of a wide variety of problems, not just the “stalking horse”, autism; and they don’t finger just mercury. When you have to lie to frame an “argument” to benefit you, that is considered patently non “scientific”. And, remember, they snicker about a fraudulent “vaccination” program used in Pakistan to isolate the location of bin Laden’s compound. “False in one, false in all” the precept ion court procedure advises; if one doctor is a liar, and other “scientists” don’t condemn that, how can you trust anything “science” says? If bike riding was so dangerous, why weren’t there numerous films and programs about the danger through the past century? In fact, there are no films which warned of head injuries. Why weren’t helmets introduced before the Seventies? The convenient dodge so many “science” devotees fall back on is, “Well, everybody back then was a moron, the people today are all geniuses”. True, the New World Order can fabricate a film and claim it existed, but, in fact, there were none. The New World Order, remember, trundled the claim of banned weapons in Iraq. “False in one, false in all.” And the claims of numbers of “accidents” involving injury by non helmet wearing bike rides are equally suspect. Not to mention the fact that the prevalence of injury in those not wearing helmets can be explaied by those not wearing helmets being 10 times more likely to be in an accident, and, don’t forget, an “accident” could just as well being someone who is promoting helmet laws driving their SUV into the bike rider and then speeding away. The “statistics” are patently non “scientific”.

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  12. 12. HildegardeCrow 7:55 pm 12/14/2012

    julianpenrod, before calling “conspiracy” why not take a few seconds to think.

    No, maybe helmets do not protect 100% against concussion. I wore a helmet and have post-concussion syndrome a year later.

    BUT! Had I not worn that helmet I would be dead as my skull would likely shattered on impact.

    THAT is why we wear helmets!

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  13. 13. hilljo15 2:29 pm 02/8/2014

    As an Athletic Trainer I have seen concussions where the symptoms were as minor as a headache and returned to play in a week and a season-ending and possible careering-ending concussion due to certain neurological deficits. Concussions are caused by a violent hit or change of direction, for example a lineman or d-back sacking a quarterback, a baseball player getting hit with a ball in the head/face, a car accident or simply falling on ice. yes the force of the hit can be distributed wearing a helmet but that doesn’t stop the brain from slamming into the inside of your skull. Many small blows can be as devastating as one big blow. Should we ban football no but by encouraging head up tackling and enforcing the targeting call I think we can get a grasp on the number of athletes dealing with lifelong mental problems. Everyone wants to point their finger and blame helmet manufacturers and others but if our athletes would communicate with their Athletic Trainers/medical personnel as well as coaches I believe the world of concussions would be different. Concussions and the what could happen and what does happen when a traumatic brain injury occurs is fairly new to medical science and as an athletic trainer myself it is not something our profession brushes off, we care about our athletes and we are basically concussion specialist in the making with us being the first like of defense for out athletes. They come to us if something doesn’t seem right and we recognize signs/symptoms of a concussion and take the necessary precaution for him/her we don’t think of the right now we think long-term. if they go back in will they walk tomorrow or enjoy grandkids one day or remember their spouse. With that being said better helmets are not the end all concussions factor. the forces that are applied to the body and cause the brain to collided with the skull can’t totally be prevented, if that was the case we wouldn’t have babies dying from shaken baby syndrome… would a helmet save them?

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