Playing It Safe: Can Protective Gear Prevent Concussions?

Playing It Safe: Can Protective Gear Prevent Concussions?

If you’re an athlete (or the parent of one), you’ve probably seen advertisements for helmets, mouth guards, and concussion headbands that promise to protect players from concussions. But do they really work?

In judging these claims, you need to consider the science behind how concussions happen, says Jonathan E. French, PsyD, a clinical neuropsychologist with the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program.

“To gain better insight into the effectiveness of protective equipment, it is important to understand the mechanism behind concussions. When there is trauma to your head — whether you are tackled on the football field, hit heads when going up for a soccer ball or you strike your head in an automobile accident — the skull protects the brain. However, the force of that impact causes your brain to move inside the skull,” says Dr. French. “It’s that acceleration/deceleration movement of the brain inside the skull, not outside, that causes a concussion.”

A Closer Look at Protective Gear

Helmets — They’re a must when playing any sport that carries a high risk of head injuries, like hockey or football. The same is true if you ride a bike or motorcycle. “Helmets are essential to reducing skull fractures,” says Dr. French. “But a fracture is very different from a concussion.” In regard to which helmet is the best, research does not support one type of helmet being superior to another in reducing incidence of concussions on the field.

Mouthguards — Invented by a British dentist nearly 140 years ago to protect the mouths of boxers, mouthguards gained a reputation for concussion prevention over the years. “It was speculated that the guards put the jaw in a position to reduce shock and minimize traumatic force to the brain,” says Dr. French.  Despite the fact that a team of top neurological experts debunked that theory in 2009, there are players who continue to wear mouthguards for concussion prevention.

Concussion headbands — The concussion-prevention headband is the latest newcomer to the concussion safety gear game, claiming to help reduce the severity of hits to the head. “They do not offer significant protection from concussion due to the mechanism of injury typical of soccer concussions,” says Dr. French.

The Bottom Line

Concussion protection gear isn’t effective in preventing concussions and might encourage more aggressive playing styles due to a false confidence that helmets will protect the athlete from a head injury.

Dr. French instead suggests that you can better protect yourself against head injuries by focusing on getting a proper-fitting helmet, learning the symptoms and dangers of concussion, and adapting “best practice” playing techniques and strength training for your sport. Perhaps most important, if you do get hit in the head and have any symptoms, get off the field, ice, or court and be properly evaluated for concussion. Proper management is the best approach to reducing the length and difficulty with recovery from concussion.