Tag Archives: michael schumaker

Do Helmets Prevent Brain Injury?

In a word. No.

A better question might be “Can Helmets Prevent Brain Injury?” Same answer – No.

It is not currently possible to develop a helmet that can protect all persons under all foreseen and unforeseen circumstances. But, given current medical understanding of head and brain injuries as well as 21st Century advanced materials, it is certainly possible to protect most people from life-threattening brain injuries under foreseen circumstances.

Helmets are actually intended to protect against blunt trauma injuries to the head. They are not specifically designed to prevent brain injuries.

The mechanisms which cause head and brain injuries are quite different. Forces associated with linear accelerations are responsible for visible injuries, such as lacerations, contusions and skull fracture. Whereas, brain injuries, including concussions, axonal injury and subdural hematoma are caused by forces associated with angular / rotational accelerations. When the head impacts a surface, the skull may come to an abrupt stop, but inertia acting on the brain will cause it to continue to move This inertia strains the nerves and blood vessels of the brain, causing injuries. The type of injury is dependent on the magnitude of this strain and the time duration over which it acts on the brain.

Helmets may indeed reduce the rotational forces acting on the brain. But since helmets are not currently certified according to their ability to protect against brain injury the level of protection is not standardized. Hence, it is possible to sustain catastrophic brain injuries, even while wearing a helmet.

I have performed extensive biomechanical testing of helmets for various applications, including military, motorcycle, football, skiing / snowboarding and cycling. My testing involves measurement of both linear and angular accelerations, thereby characterizing helmets in terms of their ability to protect against head and brain injuries. Results vary substantially between manufacturers that offer helmets for particular applications and between applications. Based on my testing to date, I can report that certain football helmets seem to outperform helmets in other categories in terms of their ability to protect against head and brain injuries.

Much research has been conducted to understand and quantify biomechanical thresholds for various head and brain injuries, including skull fractures, concussions, axonal injury (damage to nerve fibers in the brain) and subdural hematomas (bleeding in the brain). Why then don’t all helmet manufacturers strive to provide necessary protection?

There are certain intrinsic or personal factors that might increase one’s risk of head and brain injury, but for the rest of us, why do helmets provide inadequate protection against life-threatening head and brain injuries during reasonable or foreseen use?

One example of this is the life-threatening brain injury which former Formula One superstar, Michael Schumaker sustained when he fell while skiing and impacted a rock. It has been reported that Mr. Schumaker was only skiing at about 13mph when he fell and the likelihood of impacting a fixed object while skiing, such as a tree or rock is certainly not unforeseen. So why did his helmet fail to provide necessary protection?

Advanced materials certainly exist to provide required protection for normal persons, including Mr. Schumaker and many other unfortunate victims, under normal or foreseen circumstances. As end-users, we must demand that regulatory organizations require helmet manufacturers meet standards that protect persons who are not otherwise at heightened risk from head and brain injuries due to foreseen circumstances.

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Ski Helmets Not The Best Protection Against Brain Injury

Helmets are designed with one purpose, that is to prevent blunt force trauma to the head. But, what about the brain?

There is no doubt that ski helmets can and do prevent death. Take the recent accident of Formula One superstar, Michael Schumacher, who fell headfirst while skiing off-piste in the French Alps on December 29, 2013. Had he not been wearing a helmet when his head struck a rock, the result would be far more grave.


Another tragic example is that all Sally Franklyn, an avid skier and writer, who tumbled 800 feet two years ago. Fortunately, Sally was also wearing a helmet which likely saved her life. However both Sally and Michael will have a lifelong scars of traumatic brain injury.


Dr. John Lloyd, a biomechanists from Tampa has dedicated his career to the study of traumatic brain injury, John recently conducted a study on the protective properties ski helmets. While results show that wearing a ski helmet will dramatically improve protection against potentially fatal injury, findings also show that ski helmets may not provide sufficient protection against traumatic brain injury. The mechanism that causes skull fracture is quite different from that which causes the traumatic brain injury.

ski-helmet-tests-2  ski-helmet-tests-1

We have a great physicist, Professor Holbourn from Cambridge University in England, to thank for his 1943 paper on the mechanisms of head injuries. Dr. Holbourn showed, using a bowl full of Jell-O, that forces associated with linear acceleration all likely to give rise to focal head injuries, such as skull fractures. Whereas rotational forces are those more likely to give rise to brain injuries including concussion and brain bleeding.  This is because rotating a bowl of Jell-O, the Jell-O moves greatest toward the center of the bowl

As to whether or not a better helmet can be designed to protect both the skull from fracture and the brain from traumatic injury, Dr. Lloyd says absolutely. In fact, within the scope of his research into helmet protection, Dr. Lloyd’s findings show that football helmets provide far greater protection of the head and brain from traumatic injury then do ski helmets.

Upon impact linear and rotational forces act on the head. Rotational forces being tangential to the linear forces. If a tangential force acts on a material such as EPS foam we would expect little, if any, deformation of the material since such materials, as shock absorbing materials, are designed to mitigate linear forces acting directly on them.

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