Idaho State University study shows prep football participants often don’t properly inflate helmet bladders

Proper fitting football helmets are essential to help prevent concussions in prep football players, but a new study by Idaho State University shows that many players use inappropriately sized helmets, and often don’t reinflate the air bladders in their helmets.

Both of these factors can result in more concussions.

Although 97.5 percent of participants wore helmets that required regular, weekly reinflation of interior bladder systems, 43 percent of participants acknowledged never reinflating their bladders during the 12- to 16-week 2013 football season.

Carolyn Faure Furthermore, 87.7 percent of participants failed to maintain these attenuating bladders on a weekly basis, as recommended by helmet manufacturers. The purpose of those air-filled bladders is not only to ensure a better fit, but also to help absorb and redistribute the force of a blow to the head.

“Based on our findings, we concluded that more effort needs to be directed towards teaching coaches how to properly fit football helmets and on educating coaches and athletes on the need for regular helmet air maintenance,” said Caroline Faure, ISU associate professor of sport science and physical education and director of the Center for Sports Concussion.

“If kids are not inflating their helmets,” she continued, “the helmets are not going to fit their heads as a helmet should, and the helmets are not going to be able to offer them maximum protection.”

Faure and graduate assistant Aaron Armstrong just completed the study “An Examination of Football Helmet Fit and Players’ Air Maintenance Habits in Relation to Concussion in High School Sports Programs” that examined 261 participants from 12 high school programs in the Intermountain West region.

“Simply inspecting helmet bladders weekly and making air pumps available to players to reinflate those bladders could reduce the likelihood of concussion,” Faure said. “Because of the disregard for regular air maintenance, coaches and sport administrators might also consider the purchase of football helmets that do not require regular air inflation but that still score high on biomechanical testing.”

Other study highlights include:

• 18.8 percent of participants wore inappropriately sized helmets;

• 78.3 percent of participants said they did not regularly inflate their helmets because they did not think their helmet needed air.

• 19 percent of participants reported being diagnosed with a concussion at some point during the 2013 football season.

• 87.3 percent of participants reported experiencing one or more concussion-like symptom as a result of being hit during the 2013 football season, with 56.3 percent of those athletes experiencing three or more concussion symptoms.

• Players with a loose-fitting helmet were 3.2 times more likely to be diagnosed with a concussion or experience three or more concussion like symptoms.

“What we found in this study is that about one in five high school football players was wearing a football helmet that did not fit correctly,” Faure said. “Protective equipment is obviously important – especially in football where the likelihood of getting concussed is quite high. We rely on the technology to keep our kids safe. But we also have a responsibility to understand and utilize the technology. Putting air in the helmets once a week is part of that responsibility.”

There are a lot of reasons why helmet bladders will lose air. Daily wear and temperature changes certainly have an effect on the presence of air. Many helmet bladders also have a tendency to leak, and they can be easily punctured. Plus, many kids are looking for comfort, according to Faure.

“If it feels good, they don’t think they need to inflate,” she added. “But that’s not the case. Helmets should be snug. They shouldn’t move once the chin straps are fastened.”

The primary purpose of the helmet shell is to deflect impact and minimize the risk of skull fractures, she noted. The multicellular, inflatable inner liner that surrounds the crown of the skull is intended to help absorb the impact and redistribute the force. That inflatable liner system was patented in 1969. Not much has changed since then.

“While more interior padding has been added by many helmet companies to help with this redistribution of force, the inflatable liners are still there – and their role in keeping a snug fit and helping to redistribute the force of a blow to the head are still apparent and necessary,” Faure said.