Why It's Impossible To Build A Concussion-Proof Helmet

Helmets can't stop brain injuries. It's not a failure of equipment or technology or attention paid, it's a simple biological fact. Our old friend Mark Wilson has a wonderful breakdown of the technologies we have, and how they are simply not and can never be enough.

We've covered plenty of ground about the science of how actual brain injury works, but Wilson looks at how helmet technology is designed. It was originally based around preventing skull injuries, which were a fatal problem in football's early days. But these days, we're also concerned about what's happening to the brain inside the skull. And to that end, we can only do so much:

All helmets work under the same principle. The force striking one's head -- acceleration mixed with mass -- can't actually be prevented. Physics says that energy has to go somewhere, right? What good helmets do is lengthen the duration of the impact itself (in the hundredths of a second range), reverberating energy through various structures and materials, to smooth a hit from a sharp, high-g strike to a relatively smooth curve of deceleration. Consider landing on a concrete floor or a pile of pillows. Which impact takes longer and which impact hurts more?

That dispersion of force and prolongation of the impact can also be explained as a adding some deceleration before you come to an abrupt stop. Pumping the brakes before you slam into the brick wall, basically. But once you do come to that stop, your brain, which is suspended in liquid, is going to smack against the inside of your skull. That's what causes brain trauma like chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in NFL players, and it will continue to happen as long as football is played the way it is today.

And that's the only conclusion there is after taking in the state of helmet tech. You can't build a concussion-proof helmet. If the NFL really wants to eliminate brain trauma, it would have to build concussion-proof, possibly collision-proof, football. [FastCoDesign]

Picture: Jim Cooke/Deadspin

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    Surely the only way to solve this is to transfer the energy to another mass to take the hit, like Newton's cradle demonstrates. Maybe strapping bricks to helmets that fly off every time someone is tackled will help prevent head injuries and make rugby-with-pads-on interesting. Either that or you take away the helmets altogether and the players will have to develop some sort of technique to tackling, other than a fat man just diving head first at whoever has the ball, before being substituted off for a sit-down.

      "strapping bricks to helmets that fly off"

      This is genius, it would add a whole new dimension to lots of sports!

        That's the funniest thing I've read in a long time. What about little Ninja shruikens instead of bricks?

      or perhaps an exoskeleton that dissipates the energy away from the head - in a similar way that the frame of a car is designed to minimise damage to occupants in a crash.

      Explosive reactive armour. *boom*
      It might even make NRL entertaining.

    ...or the wusses could learn to play Aussie Rules instead !!

    I think the mindset that helps make Gridiron more entertaining than Rugby is more important than the protection. In Rugby, the players wear relatively little protection, and suffer relatively little injury. Why? Because many aren't willing (or perhaps: are too smart) to put victory before their health and well-being (or at least not to the extent of many NFL players). If uniforms and helmets were made safer, the players would just hit harder to try and make up for it (though safety equipment development is still of critical importance). They know the only way the other team is staying down is if they can't even force themselves onto their feet.

    Fortunately, it seems the NFL are taking an additional tact by adding rules that disadvantage a team for suffering injuries. For example: compulsory examinations from the team doctor after any major head-trauma, keeping the player off the field for those few minutes of examination, if not longer. With plans to implement more changes for the next season, including more independent doctors to ensure that the neither the injured player or their team could pressure a doctor into understating a problem. This could lead to players avoiding the most dangerous of situations while keeping their volatile, competitive fire.

    Whether we should move our focus to non-violent alternatives of full-contact sports is a different question, but regardless of the answer it's worth remembering that our most exciting moments in sport are usually the most violent (metaphorically or physically).

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