Virginia Tech Researchers' Hard Hitting Helmet Research

Blacksburg, VA - There are millions of people in this country every year that suffer a traumatic brain injury that have devastating long term effects. But there is hope through some major research going on in our area to tackle that problem.

On the campus where football reigns supreme, the enthusiasm for that sport has spread far from the field. The big hits are happening instead in labs across Virginia Tech's campus.

It's here, in a non-descript laboratory tucked away at Virginia Tech, where the science behind this, is written.

"Most of all of our sports and helmet testing is done in this lab" said Dr. Stefan Duma.

Duma is the head of Virginia Tech's Department of Biomedical Engineering.

"We were able to put some science behind these decisions; collect the exposure data, change practices, and measure the outcome" he said.

The science is determining the future of football. Duma's research starts with athletes at age seven, and extends through to the players on his college campus.

They wear sensors in their helmets.

"That'll transmit to this antenna; the computer will read each impact" said Duma.

From there, the findings have radically changed the all-important head gear taken onto every football field from high school to the NFL.

"In 2011 we came out with the first Virginia Tech helmet ratings, and really showed these are five star helmets, four, three, two, one" said Duma.

And since, all major market helmet manufacturers --from Ridell to Schutt -- have crafted their products according to Virginia Tech ratings.

"In 2011 there was only one five star helmet. Now in our third year, the 2013 ratings, we have four different five star helmets from three different manufacturers," he said.

Each helmet from pee-wee to professional undergoes 120 tests, "For a given drop, the helmet absorbs and modulates that energy better, it lowers the acceleration; better padding, lower acceleration" he said.

Duma will test each helmet from five different heights, simulating various velocities for hits. "We'll turn on the side the top and the back" he said.

Low severity drops are done more often; they simulate smaller hits. High severity drops are done less frequently, but are just as important. They simulate that once in a while hit, that could crush a player's career.

"So this is a 48 inch drop, this is going to be a high acceleration, maybe 80, 90 Gs, you're only going to see maybe five to 10 of these in a season" he said.

The research being done here is literally changing the sports scene in the country every day.

"I think one of the most positive things we've done is dramatically change what type of helmets people are wearing. So if you watched football in 2010, you would see about half of college, and half of NFL wearing these low performing, one star helmets. And you had a sea change, really in that one year in 2011 where people moved from a one star, into four and five stars," said Duma.

And it's a good thing.

It was at a Gretna High School football game in 2009 when a football player rushed to the hospital after a hard hit to the head.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, traumatic brain injury is a leading cause of death and disability among children and young adults in the U.S.-- affecting millions every year.

It's hardly from football alone. Virginia Tech is starting brand new research to study the impact of head injuries in other sports.

New technology is enabling researchers to map the impact of a soccer head-butt.

Each year an estimated 1.5 million Americans sustain a traumatic brain injury. So the work at Virginia Tech to tackle that number continues.

Researchers at Tech have also developed strategies to mitigate head and neck injuries through neck exercises. That work, they're calling project neck. View the findings published by a Virginia Tech researcher, here.