Dr. Gunnar Brolinson wonders if football helmets should be position-specific. Meaning a lineman’s helmet would be different than a defensive back’s helmet or one used by a quarterback.
After all, the head impacts that each player sustains while playing vary considerably.
“Linemen hit frequently and have low-impact blows at the front of the helmet,” said Brolinson, associate dean for clinical research and the chairman of sports medicine at Edward Via Virginia College of Osteopathic Medicine. “A defensive back may have fewer impacts at a higher acceleration. A quarterback, when hit, tends to hit on the side or back.”
So additional padding at the front for linemen or in the rear for quarterbacks could help, Brolinson said.
“This could help equipment engineers as they begin to design the next generation of safer helmets,” he said.
These assessments aren’t just intuitive from his years as the Virginia Tech football team physician. He has the data to prove it.
Since 2003, Brolinson has used the Hokies’ games and practices to record thousands of hits as he studies head injuries. It’s research that is funded by a 2007 National Institutes of Health five-year grant and it has contributed to the national discussion of concussions in football.
Currently, about 60 players — including most starters — participate by having six tiny sensors, called accelerometers, put into their helmets. These sensors measure and record the direction and magnitude of each hit the player sustains.
Virginia Tech was the first team to use the technology, which is manufactured by Simbex. Now, the technology is used by about a dozen college programs and several high school teams.
But at a starting cost of about $65,000, the system is too expensive for many teams, said Jeff Chu, vice president of engineering for Simbex. The cost currently covers the sideline computer system and 40 helmets. Additional helmets are $1,000 each.
So the company is working to develop a less expensive version that could be more widely used, Chu said.
“Our goal is to get it down to the cost of a cellphone” to install the sensors in a player’s helmet, he said.
It wouldn’t provide all the data of the more expensive system, but it would give an alert when a player has been overexposed to hits, either through a single impact or cumulative impacts. The exposure levels come from position-specific data that have already been collected. Simbex has recorded about 1.5 million hits and 70 concussions, Chu said.
A typical hit has a gravitational force, or G-force, of about 50 to 60, Brolinson said.
Brolinson and his team have found that most players who have a concussion have sustained a blow at 98 G’s or above. So the monitoring system provided by Simbex is set to alert Brolinson and his staff when a player sustains an impact above 98. It isn’t a diagnostic tool, but it does allow the team to monitor a player to see if he has any symptoms of a concussion.
While the force of the hit is a significant factor, it isn’t the only factor. Sometimes players can have a concussion from a relatively low-force blow. That happens when the player’s head rotates significantly left or right.
Picture the difference between a head slamming straight forward, versus what would happen to a boxer who has just been hit with an uppercut to the jaw.
“No helmet can protect against the rotation,” Brolinson said. “That’s why there is no such thing as a concussion-proof helmet.”
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