(CN) – Perhaps Steve Rowson was destined to publish a study contrasting and comparing the safety features of youth football helmets. After all, he is a professor of biomechanics at Virginia Tech University whose entire career has focused on ways to reduce serious head injuries to athletes competing in various contact or high-speed sports.
Within the last decade, a wellspring of concern about the safety of playing football has emerged, particularly as the awareness began to dawn on the country as a whole about the frequency of concussions incurred by football players and the long- and short-term health ramifications for those who suffer frequent head injuries.
So Rowson and his team at the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab began to take a close science-based look at how helmet design interacted with head injuries.
“We started to look at players at the college level,” Rowson said in an interview with Courthouse News.
At first, Rowson figured it would be easy enough to conduct an analysis of where college players are most frequently hit and how helmets can be built to soften the impact of those hits and just apply the findings to all football athletes, whether playing professional or Pop Warner.
But a deeper look revealed no such thing was possible.
“There is evidence that players playing at different levels have different concussion tolerance levels,” Rowson said.
For one thing, youth football players — athletes under 14 years old — are in a different stage of body development, so their heads weigh more relative to their necks, their necks are weaker and their brains are still developing.
“All of these factors influence how you design a helmet for kid versus an adult,” Rowson said.
With this in mind, Rowson recently undertook a first-of-its-kind analysis that rates how different helmets on the market protect against head injuries specific to youth football players.
It was particularly important given that the number of youth football players far outweighs the number of players participating in the sport at any other level.
The Helmet Lab at Virginia Tech have been assigning a five-star rating system to football helmets since 2011, but now parents will have access to data about which helmet can offer the best protection and use the rating system to make decisions about which protective device will be most effective for their child.
Rowson and his team have used funding from the National Institute of Health to conduct an analysis that began in 2015 and used sensors placed inside the helmets of youth football players to capture data about where in the helmet players are hit most often.
Other data points, such as the ferocity of the hit, were also available.
The team was then able to cross-reference the data with clinical information like concussion diagnostics and cognitive testing to determine which types of hits were most likely to result in a concussion.
“We were able to take that information from the field and replicate those impacts in the lab, so that we were evaluating the helmets under realistic conditions that are relevant to youth players,” Rowson said.
Each helmet went through 48 different tests that covered four impact locations and four different impact velocities.
The helmets were fastened to a dummy head fabricated to resemble that of a boy in between the ages of 10 to 12. During each impact, sensors measured how much the dummy head rotated and how far it moved in a linear fashion and the helmets were graded according their ability to limit both measures.
“When you are breaking in a car, it is easy to come to a stop if you have a lot of room, whereas if you jam on the breaks it’s a more sudden stop,” Rowson said.
Helmet manufacturers that use pad placement to allow the head more flexibility to come to a slower stop within the pad structure were rated the highest.
“The front location is where kids hit their head the most, and at high energies, so that front pad plays a big role,” Rowson said. “The lower-rated helmets would test considerably better simply by reducing the stiffness of that front padding.”
Rowson said helmet technology has come a long way since the 1970s and has made strides in the last decade when concerns over head injuries started to become more prevalent.
But he also cautioned helmets are only part of the overall solution.
“Rule changes, practice structure, player behavior and doctor interventions all play a role to reduce concussion in sport,” the professor said.
But Rowson said he also believes there is an air of inevitability to head impacts in contact sports and that helmets are a good way to soften the risk associated with such impacts.
“We just want to engineer safer sports and make data driven decision,” he said.
The helmet safety ratings for youth football and many other activities are available at the Virginia Tech Helmet Ratings website at https://helmet.beam.vt.edu/.
Meanwhile, Rowson said the next step is to develop youth-specific helmet ratings for many other athletic disciplines.