January 13, 2011

Increased helmet use in sports key to reducing brain injuries

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Vanderbilt’s Craig Ferrell, M.D., at far left in the above photo, and Allen Sills, M.D., are calling for increased use of helmets in sports to help prevent head injuries.

Increased helmet use in sports key to reducing brain injuries

An estimated 1.7 million people sustain a traumatic brain injury annually according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and two Vanderbilt University Medical Center physicians are championing widespread helmet use to lower that number.

“We see hundreds of people at Vanderbilt each year with head injuries related to participation in athletics and leisure activities,” said Allen Sills, M.D., associate professor of Neurological Surgery.

Allen Sills, M.D.

Allen Sills, M.D.

“Helmets reduce the risk of brain injury from the falls and collisions that are so common in sports. We want helmet use to become second nature and are working to spread the message and change the culture.”

The brain injuries that can be sustained while participating in sports without a helmet can result in death or severe disability and often affect thinking, movement, sensation, language and emotions.

Helmets are especially important in collision sports, such as football and hockey, and sports at high speeds, such a cycling and motocross.

“Today there are more people participating in sports and leisure activities, and people are starting at a younger age. Everyone is bigger, faster and stronger, and that makes the injuries more serious,” Sills said.

“Ten percent of all high school sports-related injuries are neurologic, and neurologic injuries are the leading cause of sports-related death. Wearing a helmet does not guarantee protection, but it certainly helps.”

This Saturday, Jan. 15, Sills and Craig Ferrell, M.D., professor of Clinical Orthopaedic Surgery and Rehabilitation, are attending a Helmet Safety Symposium focusing on equestrian helmet use and sponsored by Riders4helmets.

Craig Ferrell, M.D.

Craig Ferrell, M.D.

As medical chairman for the Fédération Équestre Internationale (FEI), the international governing body of equestrian sports, and team physician for the U.S. Olympic equestrian and swimming teams, Ferrell has long been assuring the safety of athletes.

He says one of the major barriers to encouraging helmet use in equestrian sports is the culture.

“The cowboy hat for reining and top hat for dressage are the accustomed gear, and it is difficult to change those expectations. We need to make helmets more comfortable and stylish and make it a habit to put on a helmet,” he said.

Ferrell said the resistance in helmet use in all sports is much like the initial resistance to wearing seat belts.

“When seat belt laws were first made, there was a lot of push-back. But now kids who grew up wearing seatbelts are used to them, and wearing them is second nature,” he said.

“My goal is to make a helmet something people want to use. If we can do that, we will have made a really big difference.”