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Pat White Latest Head Injury, Highlights Safer Helmet Needs


The head injuries keep on happening in the National Football League (NFL), with Miami Dolphins quarterback Pat White being the latest victim of a helmet-to-helmet collision. White’s injury is just one more episode in a field of controversy and concerns surrounding the need for safer helmets and making the game of football, which is plagued with concussions, a safer one for its players.

Part of the concern revolves around the results of several studies that have uncovered a relationship between memory-related problems and dementia and playing football. The latest study was ordered by the NFL and was conducted by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. A total of 1,063 retired NFL players were surveyed,, and the results showed that memory-related diseases appear to be significantly more common among NFL players, including a 19-fold higher rate among men between the ages of 30 and 49.

In a prior study conducted at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, data from 2,550 retired professional football players were evaluated. Nearly two-thirds of the players had experienced at last one concussion during their career, and 24 percent had had three or more. The investigators found an earlier onset of Alzheimer’s disease among these men than in the general male population.

In the face of increasing evidence of links between concussions, brain damage, and dementia among football players, the NFL has partnered with Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. The league is asking current and former NFL players to agree to donate their brains to the Center to facilitate their research.

The NFL is also currently having research conducted on helmets for the purpose of gathering information for players and equipment managers and so helmet manufacturers will know how they can improve the equipment. According to the Associated Press, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said “The majority of players are still wearing helmets designed in the ‘90s,” and so research is necessary to determine what improvements need to be made. The NFL has had a licensing/sponsorship arrangement with Riddle since 1990, and the deal does not expire until after the 2013 season.

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Jeff Pash, NFL executive VP and chief counsel, noted that the NFL could use the research data collected to “see if there are potential rules changes that should be made.” The first round of helmet testing, which was conducted from October to December at two different labs, evaluated how two helmet models made a decade ago and current models responded to hits performed at different angles and speeds up to about 22 miles per hour.

Although the final results will not be released before March, David Halstead of the Southern Impact Research Center, one of the testing labs, noted that some of the new helmets performed “significantly better in certain locations than the 10-year-old helmets,” but some of the new equipment did not test any better than the older models.

Halstead will be testifying at a congressional hearing on January 4, the House Judiciary Committee’s second recent look at football head injuries. Former NFL players Kyle Turley and Ted Johnson are also scheduled to appear, along with Ira Casson, a physician who resigned as co-chairman of the NFL’s concussion committee after accusations of bias.

Kyle Turley, who played for the NFL from 1998 to 2007, notes in written testimony obtained in advance by the AP that his “faculties continue (to) degenerate and my life continues to change.” Turley also writes that “the egregious negligence of NFL team medical staff is fairly universal, that its effects are perpetuated and magnified by the NFL disability committee,” and that “active players continue to be put into the game after suffering concussions.”

Pat White’s helmet-to-helmet injury will not be the last, concussions will continue to occur on the NFL fields, and retired players like Kyle Turley will suffer the consequences of years of hits in the NFL. Hopefully the helmet testing, the congressional hearings, and the increasing awareness by the NFL players and owners, and the general public, of the short- and long-term dangers of concussions will someday result in a safer game of football.

Associated Press
Boston University news release, Dec. 18, 2009
Guskiewicz KM et al. Neurosurgery 2005 Oct; 57(4): 719-26
Swenson DM et al. American Journal of Sports Medicine 2009 Aug; 37(8): 1586-93