Helmet Technology Could Help Prevent Traumatic Brain Injuries

By William I. Oberholtzer
With the dust yet to settle on the concussion controversy within the NFL, traumatic brain injuries are, again, center stage for not only those engaged in contact sports, but military operations as well.  

A concussion is sustained any time a blow to the head causes the brain to strike the inside of the skull. This may result in temporary or permanent damage to nerve endings and brain tissue. A condition known as post-concussive syndrome (PCS) may result. Symptoms include, but are not limited to mild, moderate or severe headaches, memory loss, irritability, mood swings, anxiety, fatigue, insomnia and cognitive impairment.

There is evidence to suggest that depression, post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD) and the suicide rate among service personnel can be linked to trauma to the head. PCS can result from single or multiple traumas. Symptoms may present themselves hours, days or weeks after an incident, and may persist over a lifetime. Whether on the battlefield or the athletic field, the simple fact is headgear worn by our soldiers and athletes fail to provide the needed levels of protection.

While the majority of concussions suffered by our servicemen are the result of explosive wave fronts or high-velocity, low-mass fragments and/or projectiles, those suffered on the gridiron are due to low-velocity, high-mass encounters with opposing players.

Helmet designs for our service personnel address the most likely head injuries associated with their mission profiles, therefore, an infantryman’s helmet differs from a combat vehicle crewman’s or that of an aviator. The same may be said for athletes. A football helmet differs from those used in hockey, lacrosse, bicycling, etc. One commonality among all helmet designs is the use of padding to mitigate shock by absorbing and distributing the impact over a wider area of the brain. The use of conventional padding, although somewhat effective, may or may not be the best approach, and in fact may contribute to some brain injuries.

One approach recently developed is the porcupine suspension system. An evolutionary improvement over traditional padded helmets, the porcupine suspension is adaptable to nearly all occupational or sports activities.

Where traditional padded helmets seek to remediate trauma by spreading the shock wave over the padded area, the porcupine uses another, more effective approach. As the name implies, the system employs a network of pillars, called pieres, to remediate the shock. Pieres are three-piece, truncated, hollow cones approximately one-and-a-half inches long, mounted on a skull cap. Rather than transferring shock waves to pads, the porcupine system dissipates shock by the progressive collapse of the pieres. 

Worn under the helmet, the size and placement of the pieres are tailored to the anticipated threat of injury associated with a particular activity. Thus, a combat helmet pieres array will differ from that of an athlete. The synergistic effect of the size, number and placement of the pieres reduces the velocity of the shockwave, and spreads the wave front over a wider area than conventional padded systems.

The pieres also reduce the secondary snapback associated with strikes to the head or upper torso.  This synergistic effect has the added benefit of reducing neck injuries.

Resembling a Star Wars Storm Troopers headgear, many of the future combat helmet designs fully encapsulate the head and incorporate face shields and mendable protection. While these improvements may afford a margin of additional protection, they still rely on traditional means of mitigating concussions.

The incorporation of the porcupine suspension system into the new helmet geometrics would improve both the comfort and protection to the wearer.  Better yet, rather than waiting for the next generation of battle dress ensembles to be fielded, retrofitting existing helmets would provide our service personnel with improved protection now.

In this era of dwindling force structures and defense dollars, let’s invest in those technologies which will provide the greatest return on investment. To that end, we submit, there is no better investment than our troops.

William I. Oberholtzer is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, and works at FFE International.

Topics: Science and Engineering Technology, Land Forces

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