Could No-Helmet Practices Prevent Concussions?
Without protection, players learn to guard their heads, research suggests
By Randy Dotinga
THURSDAY, Dec. 31, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- A new strategy to prevent concussions on the football field that seems counterintuitive may actually work, a new study suggests.
Instead of shielding the head with increasing layers of padding, researchers think they can reduce head impacts by having players temporarily practice without helmets. That approach seems to encourage players to avoid using their heads as weapons, the researchers added.
"We've found a way to decrease the number of impacts in the sport of football," said study author Erik Swartz, chair of kinesiology at the University of New Hampshire. "It's natural. By doing these drills without helmets, we take advantage of their [players'] vulnerability when their heads aren't protected. They'll naturally keep their heads out of contact."
The new study into this strategy is tiny and has its limitations, an expert pointed out. And, due to its design, the study can't prove that more helmet-less practice time reduces head impacts over a season. More research is necessary to know whether helmet-less practices can really help protect football players in general, let alone whether it's appropriate for various levels -- from flag football for kids to the professionals in the National Football League.
The study appears in the January issue of the Journal of Athletic Training.
Concussions in sports have garnered increasing attention recently. The focus has come amid greater awareness about devastating and even deadly head injuries to football players at all levels.
The new Will Smith movie, Concussion, deals with the dangers of football-related head injuries in pro football.
As helmets have become more sophisticated, researchers like Swartz fear players feel free to take more risks because they believe they're protected against injury.
"It provides a false sense of security," he said. "You can sustain a lighter magnitude impact for multiple times, and it doesn't hurt. So you're less careful with your head when it's protected."
In the new study, researchers randomly split 50 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division 1 football players from the University of New Hampshire into two groups of 25. One group practiced as normal with helmets, while the other spent five minutes once or twice a week doing tackling drills without helmets or shoulder pads.