Without a doubt, there are families in Portland that would sneer at our headline. For people who have suffered a traumatic brain injury or whose family member has suffered one, the news comes too late. For families who are new to America’s most popular sport, the news is welcome. Football helmet manufacturers are coming up with new designs that minimize the effects of a blow to a player’s head, helmets that could make the game much safer for teens and adults alike.

It seems strange, but the football helmet hasn’t changed much since the 1950s. That was the decade that saw helmets go from leather caps to hard shells with padding and facemasks. Now, 50 years later, the brain injury epidemic has motivated industry leaders and startups to look at new ways to prevent concussions or, in one case, to offer immediate treatment to a serious injury.

One high school coach talked about his team’s use of a new helmet cover. He explained that the team was losing too many players to head injuries — benched when they showed symptoms of a concussion — that there were hardly enough players left for the Friday night game. From the coach’s comments, he was motivated more by a desire to keep the kids in the game than an effort to keep the kids safe, but he did end up agreeing to use a new helmet cover last year.

Everyone was pleasantly surprised by the results of the experiment.

Every day it seems there are new revelations about football coaches targeting opposing team members for injury. People in Portland who don’t know anything about the sport have surely heard about the video of a pro team’s “pep talk” that includes a team coach urging players to “kill Frank Gore’s head” and to take advantage of another player’s previous concussions.

Civil courts are dealing with multiple lawsuits against the NFL for keeping information from players about the effects of multiple blows to the head. Now that the targeting stories are coming out, it looks as if the criminal courts could be involved, too.

While all of this is going on, helmet manufacturers are working on making the game safer. A few companies have come up with new designs that should minimize the chance of injury or the effects of a blow to the head. When we left off in our last post, we were discussing a high school’s experience with a new helmet cover.

The cover is a soft outer shell of gel-filled pouches. It fits neatly over the regulation helmet and, according to the designers’ research and the high school team’s experience, reduces the effects of helmet-to-helmet impact. The cover also reduces the helmet’s effectiveness as a weapon; the gel pouches reduce the force of a blow to a hand, knee or leg, a force that could cause serious injury with a hard-shelled helmet.

The high school team tested the covers during practices (they weren’t sure the covers were regulation in their area), but the results were stunning. One year earlier, about a dozen kids missed one or two practices or a whole game because of suspected head injuries. With the soft covers, no one missed practices or games because of a possible concussion.

Last November, we wrote about a mother in southern Oregon who filed a lawsuit against the school district. Her son was a high school football player who sustained a life-changing traumatic brain injury during a game. The boy had been hit twice and told his coaches he thought he had a concussion. They allegedly told him to “just try and stick it out.” He collapsed soon after he went back on the field.

The mom wants high school football coaches to receive additional, intensive training in recognizing and addressing concussions. For many health and safety advocates, the training is important, but what happens on the field is just part of the problem. The equipment needs to be safer.

Manufacturers have listened. New and established companies alike are testing out different helmet technology that should protect players from head injuries. As we discussed in our last couple of posts, helmet design hasn’t changed much since the 1950s, even though football leagues and medical professionals know much more about the high human cost of TBI.

One newcomer to the helmet business is working on a post-injury innovation. The gadget fits inside the helmet. If a player sustains a hard hit to the head, another player or a trainer attaches a source of cooling gas to the bladder-like device; the device fills with the gas and reduces the head’s temperature. Lowering the brain’s temperature will reduce its swelling, which can, in turn, reduce the extent of the damage.

It isn’t a cure, according to someone close to the project, but it will buy a player time. In that time, medics can take the player off the field and transport him to the trauma center.

Oregon knows the shock and anguish that comes with a teen athlete’s life-changing injury or death. The case of the high school football player that we discussed in our last post is just one example of the devastating consequences of a closed head injury. According to his mother, his coaches didn’t recognize the symptoms of his concussion. The truth is, brain injuries are often misdiagnosed or neglected in high school, college and professional sports leagues.

The efforts of parents and safety advocates to mandate training and safety rules in their school districts have gained momentum over the past couple of years. The NFL, too, has started to rethink its safety rules — and enforcement of existing rules — in response to a number of lawsuits brought by brain-injured players. Now, helmet manufacturers are entering the safety fray.

We’ve discussed a couple of experimental designs already. A helmet cover made of gel-filled pouches has reduced head injuries significantly for the high school team trying it out. Another designer has come up with a way to use the helmet to help after an injury.

Yet another company has replaced the single-piece hard shell of the helmet with multiple plates. The plates would reduce the force of any impact, large or small.

While manufacturers work to improve the gear, the league is feeling considerable pressure to make the game itself safer. Recent news of targeting certain players and paying a “bounty” for injuring opposing players enough that they have to leave the game has not helped the league’s image. It may, however, be exactly the kind of motivation the NFL needed to pay more attention to TBIs and the safety of their players.

Source: Reuters.com, “Football turns to helmet technology to tackle head injuries,” Scott Malone, April 2, 2012