The NFL season is upon us, and before we are treated to a full slate of games on Sunday, we wanted to talk a little about head and spine injuries in football players. Football is no doubt a violent sport, so medical researchers and athletic trainers are always looking for ways to reduce injuries, no matter how minor they may appear to be. It seems that we as a nation have gotten better at treating and managing players after they suffer a concussion, but what if we could reduce the number of concussion so we didn’t have so many players going through the head trauma protocol?
In an effort to see if there was anything that could be done to reduce the number of concussions during football practices and games, researchers conducted a two-year study with an interesting hypothesis. They wanted to see how concussion and spine injury rates were affected if players ditched their helmets, an object used to protect their head – during practice.
It might seen counterintuitive, but many concussions are suffered when a defender leads with their head to tackle an opponent. Researchers surmised that players would be less likely to lead with their head in practice if they didn’t have the illusion of safety offered by a helmet.
Researchers tested their theory on 50 players on the University of New Hampshire, a NCAA Division I team, divided into a control group and a helmetless group. During practice, both groups did some tackling drills with a dummy throughout the course of the season. During games and the player-on-player portion of practice, each group wore helmets equipped with impact-sensors to monitor for concussions.
At the end of the season, individuals in the helmetless group experienced 30 percent fewer concussions than the control group.
“This behavior modification is not only about alleviating head impacts that can cause injuries now, but reducing the risk of concussive impacts that can lead to long-term complications later in life,” said Erik Swartz, who led the study. “These helmetless drills could help to make it safer to play football.”
Researchers didn’t delve into specifics as to why the helmetless group experienced fewer head and spine traumas, but there’s a belief that learning to tackle and hit an opponent without leading with their head can reduce the number of concussions. It’s possible that players in the helmetless group learned how to safely tackle an opponent during the portion of practice where their ditched their helmets, and they continued those techniques during times when they wore their headgear.
“The idea of taking off the football helmet during practice to reduce head impact may seem counterintuitive to the sport,” Swartz said. “But the findings show that preventing head impacts, which can contribute to spine and head injuries like concussions, may be found in behavior modification like these drills.”