New football helmet standards aimed at reducing concussions will measure rotational forces

A high school football coach examined a new helmet at a 2011 safety seminar in the Kansas City area.
A high school football coach examined a new helmet at a 2011 safety seminar in the Kansas City area.

Starting in June 2018, the Overland Park-based National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment will include rotational forces in its testing certification standard for new football helmets.

While newer helmets have increased head-injury protection, they have remained limited in protecting players from side blows that result in violent twisting motions.

“It goes as far as it can go with the science and technology that we currently have,” NOCSAE Executive Director/Legal Counsel Mike Oliver said. “That sounds a little bit like a copout, but we’re actually kind of pushing the envelope with this.”

The newly developed performance standard, a pass-fail test manufacturers will be required to meet for certification of new helmets, goes into effect in 15 months.

“This is an extraordinary step forward in addressing concussion risks,” said NOCSAE vice president Robert Cantu, a clinical professor at the Boston University School of Medicine’s Department of Neurosurgery and the co-founder/medical director of the Concussion Legacy Foundation.

Cantu said “the majority of neuroscientists” agree that rotational forces are “more injurious to the brain than linear accelerations.”

He added current helmets provide excellent protection from straight-on blows, which he likened to being struck in the head by a ball-peen hammer, but the angled blows are more common and more damaging because they stretch nerve tissue to a greater degree.

“Obviously, if you could reduce the degree of rotation, the excursion of it, you’d reduce brain injury and concussion associated with it,” Cantu said. “Computer modeling of brain movement exists, so the research is well understood.”

Until now, however, there was no standard for limiting such forces.

“It’s a significant advancement for NOCSAE to move to final status a rotational acceleration threshold in addition to their already existent linear acceleration threshold in their football helmet standard,” Cantu said.

NOCSAE has been studying concussion risks for two decades, funding research and working toward a testing protocol. Research had to advance to the point where an injury threshold could be determined.

“Based on the data, we came up with 6,000 radians per second squared,” Oliver said. “There still lots of questions about not just what the injury threshold is, but what is it you have to be below to have a significant level of protection. We think there’s a pretty good consensus right now on most of that, but there’s still a lot to be done.”

The next challenge was developing a test that effectively measured those forces and was repeatable.

“We’ve been developing the testing protocol since the first time it was published in 2004,” Oliver said.

After 13 years of refinement, NOCSAE believes it’s developed a standard that can be instructive for designing helmets that will make football safer for players.

“I think there will be concussions that will be prevented, that will not have occurred because of the standard, but I don’t think we’ll be able to prove it,” Oliver said. “… The fact of the matter is concussions are a rare event statistically. There are a lot of them that occur, but you have to consider the number of opportunities for a concussion to occur and the fact that very few do out of millions and millions of hits. You could reduce the number of concussions from 300,000 to 250,000 — a big reduction — but I don’t know that you’d be able to measure that.”

Oliver called the new testing standard a “drastic step.”

“This truly is unplowed ground,” he said. “There is no standard in the world that has attempted to incorporate these kinds of accelerations, the ones that are specific to concussions, into a pass-fail standard. In that sense, it really is groundbreaking.”

With input from manufacturers and continued research, it also lays the groundwork for more breakthroughs in the future.

“Now, we can start to make some significant strides and really get to the point where we may want to refine this and not test it the same all around,” Oliver said. “We may want to have different values for different directions of rotation — side-to-side may be one threshold, front-to-back may be a different threshold. There are lots of things now that we can start to work on that we couldn’t before we got all these issues ironed out.”

Tod Palmer: 816-234-4389, @todpalmer