Why we need a helmet to protect against concussion

And how donor-funded research is working to make it a reality

Mifi Purvis - 28 June 2018

Megan Ogle was halfway through her master's research in head injury biomechanics when she sustained a concussion on the ice.

Ringette player Megan Ogle was racing down the ice when she collided with a bigger player. She fell, her head snapping backward as she slammed against the ice. In 12 years, it was the 23-year-old's first serious injury.

Her memory of the incident is hazy, a sign she sustained a moderate concussion. In the weeks after the injury, lights and noise bothered her and carrying on a conversation was exhausting. "It was about six weeks until I was back to myself," she says.

1 in 5: Number of Canadians who have been diagnosed with a sports-related concussion

83: Canada Research Chairs held by U of A faculty and recognized by the Government of Canada as "the world's most accomplished and promising minds"

40%: Increase in rates of reported head injury among children and youth relative to other sports injuries between 2004 and 2014

9: Number of accelerometers that measure mechanical impact on a dummy's head in the U of A's Biomedical Instrumentation Laboratory

One in five Canadians has had a concussion diagnosis, but it's estimated 50 per cent of concussions are never reported. The effects, especially with repeated concussions, are wide-reaching. Chronic pain, lost time at school or work, diminished neurological capacity and depression can add up to a lifetime of challenges and missed opportunities.

Ogle counts herself lucky her brain injury wasn't worse. Soon she was back to work on her research - coincidentally - on the biomechanics of head and neck injury. To help study helmet effectiveness, she is creating a model that can realistically mimic a human neck, rather than the current stiff, crash-test-dummy model.

Ogle is one of several students at the U of A's Biomedical Instrumentation Laboratory whose research is funded by donor support. Their projects include looking at helmet protection from combat blasts, learning about the brain's chemical response to impact, and measuring a helmet's degree of protection against concussion.

As our ability to diagnose brain injury improves, many people are critical of sports equipment and wonder why manufacturers don't just make better helmets. But it's not that simple.

"What most people don't realize is that helmets weren't designed to protect against concussion," says Brooklyn Knowles, a PhD student in the lab. "They were made to save lives."

Knowles and Ogle hope to see helmet technology catch up with public expectations. Their work could allow helmet manufacturers to create better gear and back it up with verifiable claims.

Thanks to donors, this research in helmet effectiveness will lead to improved design and testing of protective gear, safer games and better lives.

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