Can helmets protect your kids from concussions like companies claim?

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- From Pop Warner to the pros, football players will soon strap on their helmets for another hard-hitting season on the gridiron. Those hard hits can be dangerous, even deadly. Helmet companies claim new products can protect your kids from concussions, but do they really work?

The big helmet-to-helmet hits send football fans to their feet. The problem is that the hits also send players to the hospital. The concussion discussion dominates safety speak at every level.

“As a parent, you are always concerned,” mom Jennifer Dunton said.

Moms and dads are concerned and helmet companies are taking notice. Just read the product description on helmets found in any sporting goods store and you’ll notice slogans like: “Shield yourself from the gridiron” and “The right blend of protection and playability” or “Superior shock absorption for the hardest hits.”

All the claims sound good, but do the helmets live up to the claim?

“We know concussions are not prevented by helmets, even the best ones, even ones better than the last generation don't protect you from whiplash or rotational injuries, and those injuries can cause concussions,” said Dr. Randall Goldstein.

Dr. Goldstein with the Sports Medicine and Performance Center at the University of Kansas Hospital says helmets were originally made to protect from skull fractures and severe traumatic brain injuries, not really for mild traumatic brain injuries, which by medical definition is a concussion.

So what do helmets actually protect players from? Dr. Goldstein says they can help with impact injuries, such as head-to-head and head-ground, not concussions.

“There is no way to 100 percent prevent a concussion in any sport,” he said.

That is a frightening fact to Dunton, whose daughter plays soccer, a sport where her head is not protected.

“It's very scary when you watch the games and the practice, you know in the back of your head an injury could be at any time,” she said.

That's why she's getting her daughter baseline testing for a reference point, just in case. Dunton says the fear of an injury is the price parents pay while watching their kids compete and a head injury is always a concern.

But Dr. Goldstein says education and pre-testing can help.

“A mild traumatic brain injury has long-lasting potential bad outcomes, so we try to get them back very slowly so we don't have those bad outcomes,” he said.

By law, Kansas and Missouri require a doctor's clearance before athletes return to a sport, for Dr. Goldstein, it's an in-depth, four-step process:

  1. Symptoms
  2. Balance
  3. Computer Impact Testing
  4. Physical Examination

Dr. Goldstein says the timetable of return varies on the athlete and, of course, the severity of the injury. But returning from a concussion too early could be deadly.

The most dangerous thing is sometimes not the first impact, but having a concussion not resting. And the second impact, the second concussion could be life-threatening and certainly none of us want that for an athlete," Dr. Goldstein said.

The final word on helmets: Dr. Goldstein says research shows newer helmets may protect 3-to-5 percent better than the previous ones, but if parents are looking for a silver bullet of protection inside a shiny helmet on a store shelf, they won't find it.

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