Clemson researchers trying to improve helmet facemasks

December 27, 2016 / FootballSports Medicine & Nutrition
From Clemson University

A team of Clemson University researchers believes it can help make football safer by creating a facemask that helps reduce the severity of head injuries.

The researchers are teaming up with Jay Elmore, owner of Green Gridiron, to determine how future designs of facemasks can help improve the overall safety of football helmets. The team has received a nearly $50,000 grant from the Robert H. Brooks Sports Science Institute for their study “Quantifying the Impact Performance of Football Helmet Facemasks.”

“What we’re working on is trying to understand and evaluate the role a football helmet facemask plays in the overall impact performance of a football helmet system,” said Alex Bina, one of the Clemson researchers. “We’re doing this by evaluating the mechanisms by which forces are transmitted from the facemask through the rest of the helmet system upon impact.”

The forces Bina refers to are g-forces, which result from accelerations experienced by the head during impact. Bina and the rest of the team are working to make helmets more safe by creating a facemask that can help the helmet transfer g-forces away from the head. Traditional helmet design produces protective equipment that gradually decelerates the head upon impact. Facemasks are to prevent direct contact with players’ faces.

According to the National Institutes of Health, head injuries can occur when there is rapid change in the movement of the head, such as when a football player is tackled. Any significant force can have a detrimental effect on brain tissue. Batt said there are many different situations on a football field that cause rapid changes in velocity, or g-forces.

The Clemson team is using a linear drop tower system for its tests. Helmets tested in this manner are placed on an anthropomorphic head model and dropped from a specific height to generate a simulated football head impact. In the lab, the researchers said the linear drop tower testing system shows fewer than three impacts of 12 mph can cause permanent damage to facemasks. Football players of all positions commonly reach maximum velocities above 12 mph, especially on kickoff returns and coverage plays in both games and practice.

Using the linear drop system introduces many variables to the overall performance of a facemask design, including the helmet’s padding structure, the helmet’s outer shell and the chin strap buckles. Some facemask designs only fit one helmet style, but testing the entire helmet system will not specifically determine how one facemask performs compared to another.

The facemask tests are being conducted in the head impact section, the Clemson Helmet Impact Performance Laboratory (CHIP LAB) of the Sonoco Packaging Science laboratory on the Clemson campus. Some variables the researchers are studying include structural stiffness, resistance to permanent deformation and energy absorption. Over the course of a season, an NFL or college team may experience a handful of permanent facemask deformations in game situations, requiring the equipment staff to replace the facemasks on the sideline. However, at the youth level, the course of a season’s worth of impacts in practices and games can permanently damage facemasks beyond repair.

Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control indicate about 75 percent of traumatic brain injuries that occur each year are concussions. Sports is second only to car crashes as the leading cause of brain injury among people aged 15 to 24 years.

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