Modern football helmets are no more effective in protecting high school and college players from injury than the leather helmets used nearly 100 years ago, according to a new study by the Cleveland Clinic.
Researchers conducted impact tests on the latest, high-tech helmets and low-tech old ones that mimicked the hits young players routinely suffer on the field and that lead to thousands of concussions each year.
"What we tested were common, everyday hits," said lead researcher Adam Bartsch. "We didn't test the really severe NFL kill shots."
The researchers discovered that for most impacts and angles, today's polycarbonate helmets are no better at reducing injury than the "leatherheads" of old. And in some cases, the old helmets offered slightly better protection.
Bartsch called the results "really surprising." He said they raised serious questions about the effectiveness of a helmet with a hard outer shell and a fairly stiff interior padding in protecting players from the low- and medium-impact hits that, over time, could lead to head, neck and brain injuries.
The Cleveland Clinic researchers say they are not advocating a return to leather helmets. But they hope the study will prompt helmet manufacturers to re-examine design, especially of youth helmets.
Bartsch said that while those youth helmets, which are essentially scaled down-versions of pro helmets, appear to have been optimized for the high-impact hits common in the National Football League, they are not optimized for the less dramatic -- but still traumatic -- hits that occur thousands of times a day during amateur play.
The results were published online on Friday in the Journal of Neurosurgery.
Last month, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control said emergency room visits by children and adolescents for brain injuries jumped 60 percent between 2001 and 2009.
Football was one of the sports the CDC said was most likely to lead to brain injuries.