Concussion protection: Leather helmets may be as good as modern ones

Newer isn’t necessarily always better, even when it comes to football helmets. A study published online Friday in the Journal of Neurosurgery finds those vintage “leatherhead” helmets may protect as well as or better than modern ones when it comes to some typical helmet-on-helmet collisions that can lead to concussions.

Let’s pause for a disclaimer: The study authors don’t advocate giving up today’s polycarbonate helmets for those old leather-covered ones--the newer ones have resulted in a decrease in severe head and neck injuries. But they add that modern helmets may not protect as well as they could against some forces that can cause concussions.

Researchers compared impact tests on 11 commonly used modern helmets to two helmets from the early 20th century. In an injury biomechanics lab they re-created a number of typical impacts at 75 g-forces or less. These represented severity levels similar to 95% of the collisions that happen in high school and college games and practices.

Impact tests were done from the front, oblique front, lateral, oblique rear and rear head. In several of the tests the leather helmets protected as well as or better than the modern helmets in head impact doses and head injury risks.


Modern football helmets, the authors wrote, are designed to meet the standards of the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment. But they note that the NOCSAE’s tests focus on high-impact hits that can cause catastrophic injuries, not less severe collisions.

Those milder hits can still cause concussions, which are on the rise in youth sports, according to studies. Research has also shown that cumulative concussions may up the risk of a number of health issues, including depression, sleep problems, dementia, dizziness and memory loss.

“Unlike cars, in which seat belts, airbags and crumple zones make the choice between a 1920’s Model T and modern mini-van a no-brainer, these results tell us that modern helmets have ample room to improve safety against many typical game-like hits,” said lead author Adam Bartsch in a news release. Bartsch is director of the Spine Research Lab in the Cleveland Clinic Center for Spine Health.

“In youth football, in which children as young as six years of age regularly incur head impacts,” the authors wrote, “injury risk standards and limits on head impact doses are desperately needed to minimize short-term acute head injury risk and long-term risk due to dose accumulation.”