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ADVANCE Perspective: Physical Therapy & Rehab Medicine

Can Helmetless Drills Decrease Football Head Impacts?

Published December 28, 2015 3:04 PM by Brian Ferrie

The National Athletic Trainers' Association (NATA), Dallas, issued an interesting press release Dec. 18 related to the hot-button issue of head impacts in football. The release stated:

"Head impacts in football players are directly associated with brain and spine injury and have been suggested to be associated with chronic injuries, making this a topic of continued national concern. To reduce the risk of head-impact injury, researchers and others have sought ways to improve helmet technology, reduce contact during practices, and alter game rules."

A new study, "Early Results of a Helmetless-Tackling Intervention to Decrease Head Impacts in Football Players," published in the Journal of Athletic Training investigated the effectiveness of helmetless tackling to reduce head-impact exposure in an NCAA Division I football program.

"Given proper training, education and instruction, college football players can safely perform supervised tackling and blocking drills in practice without helmets," said Erik E. Swartz, PhD, ATC, FNATA, lead author of the study and professor and chair, Department of Kinesiology, University of New Hampshire. "This intervention also eliminates a false sense of security a player may feel when wearing a helmet. Younger players with less experience may require modifications to this intervention to realize a positive effect. While more research is needed, our results do show a reduction in head impacts during our one season of testing."

The results stem from the first year of a two-year study focusing on 50 NCAA Division I football players at the University of New Hampshire who were assigned to an intervention or control group. The intervention group participated in 5-minute tackling drills without their helmets and shoulder pads. Drills occurred twice per week during preseason practices and once per week throughout the competitive season. Meanwhile, the control group performed noncontact football skills with no change to their routine. All athletes were provided head-impact patch sensors worn on the skin and new helmets. At the end of the season, the intervention group experienced a 28-percent reduction in head impacts during practices and games than the control group.

"These findings elucidate the risk-compensation phenomenon and may help explain the behavior of spearing and the rise in catastrophic neck and head injuries that followed," the study authors noted. "A football helmet is designed to protect players from traumatic head injury, but also enables them to initiate and sustain impacts because of the protection it affords. While improving protective equipment in and of itself will not resolve the risk of concussion and spine injury in football, the solution may be found in behavior modification."

What are your thoughts about this study and the merits of helmetless drills to help reduce head impacts in football?

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1 comments

It would be interesting to see this put into practice among different Universities and possibly NFL teams to see if the results pan out.

Michael Arrascue May 27, 2016 5:11 PM
Lake Worth FL

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