Whether you’re an elite performer, weekend warrior, or parent of athletes, you likely know how serious concussions can be. Classified as a traumatic brain injury, a concussion happens when a blow or hit to the head or body causes the brain to rattle, bounce, or twist inside the skull, temporarily interrupting normal brain function.
Sports-related concussions occur more than 300,000 times annually in the U.S., according to the University of Pittsburgh’s Brain Trauma Research Center. But does protective gear help prevent the likelihood of concussion?
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Understanding Different Gear
We asked Jonathan E. French, PsyD, a clinical neuropsychologist with the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program, to help us understand the different types of protective gear and their effectiveness against concussions.
Helmets are 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.” A helmet cannot necessarily prevent the brain from rattling in the skull. Research does not support one type of helmet being superior to another in reducing concussions on the field, but helmets do offer head protection from impact.
Invented by a British dentist more than 100 years ago to protect the mouths of boxers, mouthguards gained a reputation for concussion prevention over the years. “It was speculated that the mouthguards 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. Mouthguards are certainly good for protecting teeth, but not so good for preventing concussions.
The concussion-prevention headband is a newcomer to the concussion safety-gear game, claiming to help reduce the severity of hits to the head in sports where players do not wear helmets, such as soccer. However, Dr. French shares: “Concussion headbands do not offer significant protection from concussion due to the mechanism of injury typical of soccer concussions.” Concussions can occur not only from a direct hit to the head, but also from blows to the body that may also shake the brain.
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The Bottom Line
Concussion-protection gear is not effective in preventing concussions and actually might encourage more aggressive play due to false confidence that the device 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 properly fitting helmet, learning the symptoms and dangers of concussion, and adapting “best practice” playing techniques and strength training for your sport. Learn more about concussion prevention methods here.
If you do get hit in the head and have any symptoms, Dr. French urges that you take these precautions:
- Get off the playing surface immediately and to a safe sideline
- Visit a concussion expert for a full evaluation of your condition
Proper concussion management is the best approach to reducing the length and difficulty of recovery from concussion.
To learn more or schedule an appointment with the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program, please call 412-432-3681 or visit UPMC.com/Concussion.
About Sports Medicine
Sports and physical activity bring with them a potential for injury. If you are looking to prevent, treat, or rehabilitate a sports injury – or improve athletic performance – UPMC Sports Medicine and the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program can help. We serve athletes and active people of all ages and experience levels. Our experts partner with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Pitt Panthers, and about 100 other high school, college, and regional teams and events throughout Pennsylvania – working daily to build better athletes.