Study: Helmets offer little defense against concussions


April 13, 2023

New York Tech has a dire warning for footballers, cyclists and others who strap on protective helmets: Even current top-of-the-line models won’t likely prevent a concussion.

That’s the conclusion of a new study led by researchers at the New York Institute of Technology’s Old Westbury-based College of Osteopathic Medicine, which finds that hard-shelled, heavily padded helmets – still a basic and undeniably important safety precaution, very good at preventing skull fractures and head lacerations – are lacking when it comes to concussions, wherein blunt trauma careens the brain into cranial bones.

Modern helmets have come a long way, primarily by adding thick layers of padding to those hardened outer shells; evolutions in size, shape and material have also enhanced protections not only for professional athletes, but for military personnel, industrial workers and others needing to nurture their noggins.

But with concussion awareness making headlines across amateur and professional sports, NYITCOM researchers led by biomedical engineer and Assistant Professor Milan Toma set out to determine if modern helmets were really any better at preventing concussions than their less-padded predecessors.

According to a study published this month in the open-access, peer-reviewed journal Applied Sciences, when it comes to concussion prevention, all the padding in the world won’t help against multiple hard hits in quick succession – exactly the kind of jarring thuds a quarterback or tumbling cyclist might endure.

Using 3D computer models, Toma and his team simulated brain-skull interactions under conditions resembling low-speed, head-on collisions, similar to the “force of impact” routine to contact sports and bicycle accidents, according to New York Tech.

The simulations – simulating the physics of hard-exterior, soft-inner-padding helmets – also accounted for the presence of cerebrospinal fluid, which fills the central brain cavity and cushions the brain against skull impacts.

Most importantly, the simulations projected quick-succession hits – causing rapid brain oscillations and invariably giving the simulated victim a concussion, with the modernized helmets doing little to lessen the severity of the impact injuries.

The conclusions didn’t surprise Toma, who’s conducted previous studies exploring the nature of concussions. They also meshed with a 2020 study by Duke University scientists that suggested unpadded World War I-era hardhats may have been better suited to preventing concussions than modern padded helmets.

All of this sounds like an indictment of the current generation of protective headgear, but the new NYITCOM research – published the same month the NFL approved a new quarterback-specific helmet designed specifically to prevent concussions – is actually a clarion call for newer, safer helmets, according to Toma.

“Our new study may have implications for future helmet design,” the researcher noted. “And (it) calls into question current assumptions regarding the best way to protect soldiers and athletes from concussions.”

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