The new study on concussions does not say that student athletes should stop wearing safety equipment, but it does suggest that headgear -- like helmets -- might not help as much as we think.
Reports of sports-related concussions have been rising, and a new study from the Institute of Medicine says what many experts have already been noticing: That equipment often touted for head safety -- like helmets -- can only go so far.
"People often come to me and say well does my kid need a better helmet or do they need to wear a headband in soccer or a padded helmet and the truth is I tell them that helmets are good but helmets' limitations are sort-of protecting you against big injuries -- skull fractures. They don't seem to be able to protect you against concussions," says Sports Medicine Physician Matt Gammons.
So while the helmet, face mask, mouthguard, or other gear may help to stop something from breaking, it can't stop the brain from sloshing around in your head if you're hit. And that, experts say, is what causes the concussions.
"But we still haven't really come up with data to say this is the concussion threshold, these are the forces directly causing the concussion. So it makes it very difficult for an engineer to sit with a helmet and say, okay, we can make this concussion proof or better if we don't really know what those forces are," Gammons says.
The report recommends a national system to better track concussions, and says more research is needed to figure out whether better headgear might be an answer. And it also says there isn't enough data about athletes at younger ages, something local experts agree with.
"At every grade level have some sort of sample that says here's what happens. But the thing to remember about brain injury is you can't apply a cookie-cutter approach," says Barb Winters with the Brain Injury Association of Vermont.
Because each person's brain is unique, it's hard to pinpoint exact effects of head impacts or treatment plans. And it can be hard to diagnose concussions, since it primarily relies on the individual to identify their symptoms instead of using objective diagnostic markers. And because many athletes don't want to be taken out of play, they ignore their symptoms.
"Culturally we need to say to kids, going back to the game isn't worth it," Winters says.
Some sports were singled out. For high school and college men, the concussion rates were higher for football, ice hockey, and lacrosse. For women, lacrosse is also on the list, as well as soccer and basketball.
Some symptoms of concussion include vomiting, dizziness, and vision problems. For more resources, you can visit the Brain Injury Association of Vermont's website: http://biavt.org
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