Head impacts high when kids play football

child_football_impacts Ray Daniel, a doctoral student at Virginia Tech, uses a computer system receiving input from sensors in kids’ helmets to gather impact data from the Auburn Eagles players.

Oct. 18, 2011 – By Zack Aldrich

Children who play youth football might be experiencing head impacts comparable to what college athletes encounter, report scientists at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

“We’re finding that, surprisingly, these kids are getting hit harder than we originally thought,” said Ray Daniel, a doctoral student in biomedical engineering at the university. “In terms of measurements, these kids are seeing around 30 to 50 g, and the average impact for a college player is about 26 g. We didn’t exactly expect to see 7- and 8-year-olds get college-level hits.”

G-force measures the force on a stationary body due to sudden acceleration. The g-force on the driver when a race car accelerates from zero to about 100 miles per hour in a second is only a little more than 5 g.

The Auburn Eagles, a team of 6- to 8-year-old boys in Montgomery County, Va., are the subjects of the research. The ongoing study employs eight sensors with 12 different meters that measure acceleration. The eight sensors are rotated among the youth players and placed inside their helmets in a horseshoe design that fits inside interior padding.

“This is the first time someone has quantified every injury,” said Stefan Duma, a professor of biomedical engineering. “If we understand what acceleration levels are, we can make better helmets. This is the first study in the nation that’s going to do this.” Duma hopes to publish a formal study in the spring, though preliminary data were released publicly today.

Because the study began this fall, Daniel said it’s too early to determine precisely what impact is too great for a child to bear, particularly given that each player has a different threshold. However, he said researchers have found no data suggesting the Eagles are at concussion-level impact.

“The ultimate goal is to reduce the risk of injury for child athletes, and this can transcend into other sports,” Duma said. “From there, you can go into automobile safety, too. This is a much bigger study than football. It transcends quite a few disciplines.”

Researchers take measurements — where the players are most often hit, the magnitude of the hit, what direction the hit comes from — that are transmitted wirelessly to a computer on the sidelines, and data points received in real-time are downloaded onto a network for analysis. Researchers have recorded more than 400 data points and expect to have three times that by the season’s end.

“The distribution is skewed to the left,” Duma said. “This means we are seeing high impacts, some in the 50, 60, 70 g range, and that starts to approach the lower side of what we see with some of the concussion risk of the adult players.”

Elizabeth Pieroth, a board-certified neuropsychologist uninvolved with the study, works with Chicago sports teams such as the White Sox, Blackhawks and the Bears.

She said she applauds the Virginia Tech research for implementing an impact system instead of the typical “drop technique,” where scientists release a weighted helmet from a given altitude. “That’s not a complete picture of the types of blows in real games,” she said. “The hit system does a better job of looking at all the areas of helmets where kids are taking hits.”

She said she also thinks particular specifications for child helmets would be a welcome change. “We shouldn’t have the same generic style of helmet for an 8-year-old as we would an NFL player.”

Parents consented to the study before the season began, and Duma said the researchers allow games to unfold rather than manipulating them in such a way to elicit additional high-impact situations. “We are hands-off,” he said. “The players run practice drills just like normal, and we don’t have anything to do with it. The games happen per league rules.”

Although the research is currently not affiliated with manufacturers to preserve integrity, Duma noted that the data could ultimately manifest in production guidelines for manufactures such as Riddell or Schutt.

Ed Fisher, who was not involved with the study, has coached athletics in Oregon and Hawaii, and he coached high school football at South Kitsap High School in Washington for more than 20 years.

He is also executive director of the National Athletic Equipment Reconditioning Association, an organization whose members are certified to recondition helmets. In the process, the helmets are taken apart, washed, buffered, sanitized, painted as needed and tested for safety.

“I think the whole game of football is under such scrutiny now, by way of public opinion,” he said.

Child helmets are currently produced under the same standards as adult helmets. While different sizes are available for various weights and age groups, the manufacturing standards are alike in both cases. Fisher said it is difficult to create a separate production standard because children’s bodies vary widely. He said the association’s own definition of youth ranges from ages 6 to 14, but that “doesn’t mean there isn’t some 13- or 14-year-old kid who’s mature and needs to be in an adult helmet.”

The association now rejects helmets brought into its facilities that were made in 2002 or earlier.

“If the helmet is old, not reconditioned and recertified, and the person fitting doesn’t know how to fit, your probability becomes quite higher that something bad could happen,” he said. “Nobody wants to have a helmet that’s five years old but never reconditioned, where four different kids have had their heads in there and it’s never been cleaned or sanitized. I wouldn’t want my son to have his head in there.”

John Clark also has experience coaching high school football. As head coach for the Auburn Eagles, he said the research is timely given his impression that, nationally, fewer children are trying out for football.

“Even my wife and I didn’t necessarily want to put our firstborn out on the field to get creamed,” he said. “But it is important to realize that people are looking forward to making things safer and still keeping the sport alive for our kids and grandkids. I’m all about that.”

This week, Pieroth met with a 10-year-old and his father, after the boy had a concussion. The father had many questions and was comparing a Riddell helmet with a Schutt. “One of my biggest issues when it comes to helmets,” she said, “is that parents are putting too much faith in them. They do a good job of protecting kids, but only to a point. They were originally designed to prevent skull fractures, and only recently are we looking at concussions.”

She warns that parents should not place too much emphasis on something that is only one component of risks for head trauma. “You’ll never make a concussion-proof helmet,” she said. “We need to be looking at technique and style of play and the aggressiveness of each kid … do they wrestle? Do they play offense of defense?”

Clark hopes further safety research will attract more children and their parents toward athletics.

“Football teaches them life skills about responsibility and leadership that other sports might not have the opportunity to teach,” he said.

After three years without a win, this season the Auburn Eagles have two under their belt.

“They want me to coach next year,” Clark said. “Of course, I will.”