Play it Safe: Basics of Proper Helmet Use

June 8, 2021

If you or your child plays sports or participates in physically risky activities, wearing a helmet could be lifesaving. While no helmet is concussion-proof, wearing one can help reduce the risk of serious head injuries.

"Helmets are made with materials that help reduce impact to the head, protecting the skull from damage," says Jeffrey Kutcher, M.D., a sports neurologist who treats athletes at the Henry Ford Kutcher Clinic for Concussion and Sports Neurology. "You should be wearing a helmet whether you're playing a contact sport or riding something on a hard surface, such as a bike, scooter, skateboard or rollerblades."

Head Injury Prevention 101: Helmet Buying Basics

All helmets are certified at the same level for multi-use recreational activities. So there's no need to search for a specific seal or rating. Instead, when you're purchasing a helmet — or getting one second-hand — focus on these four factors:

How you’ll use it:

Pay attention to the risks involved with the activity you're doing. If you're biking, skiing or snowboarding, for example, you're wearing a helmet in case you get hit, not because you'll get hit.

There are two types of helmets: single-impact and multiple-impact. Single-impact helmets are made with foam materials that break down when hit as part of their force mitigating strategy. These helmets work well for bicycling, skateboarding, skiing or snowboarding. Multiple-impact helmets, such as those designed for sports like football, hockey and lacrosse, can withstand many hits over an entire season. The materials in these helmets don't break down, but rather compress and regain their original form.

"A helmet may perform better in the lab — for example, the dummy brain will experience 98Gs of force instead of 100Gs — but 2Gs of force probably won't make enough of a difference with a one-time injury," Dr. Kutcher says. "But 2Gs less force per hit for a linebacker who suffers multiple blows on a daily basis for many years? That could make a big difference.”

If football is your sport, the National Football League provides a helmet rating system that assesses helmets based on their ability to mitigate force over time.

How it fits:

Helmets fit differently depending on the make, style and type of sport they’re made for. "The key is making sure the helmet covers the entire skull and doesn't move around when in use," Dr. Kutcher says. The helmet should sit on the head without falling forward or backward. If you're relying only on a chinstrap to keep it in place, you don't have the right fit.

How comfortable it is:

Not all helmet brands fit every head. Helmet designs vary just like running shoes do. When you're shopping for a helmet, make sure it's snug, but not tight or uncomfortable. Comfort is critical, especially for kids. "You don't want a child to develop a negative association with wearing a protective helmet," Dr. Kutcher says.

What condition it’s in:

To get the most protection, your helmet should be in top condition. Do not wear a cracked or broken helmet, or one that has been involved in a crash or similar event (unless it's a multiple-impact design). An impact can crush foam materials. And don't allow the helmet to get too hot or cold — that can cause the materials to break down over time.

Get the Best Helmet Fit for Your Head

Properly wearing a helmet provides the greatest defense against injury — more than any style or brand. To make sure your helmet is secure, follow these rules:

· Measure head circumference: Every helmet brand provides a size chart, along with instructions about how to select the best fit. To get the best measurement, use a cloth tape to measure your head circumference. Place the tape about an inch above the eyebrows, keeping it level from front to back. If the measurement falls between sizes, select the smaller size.

· Pay attention to hairstyles: Make sure to try the helmet on with the hairstyle you'll have during the activity. A long-haired bike rider who gets a short haircut may require a helmet adjustment.

· Watch your vision: The helmet should not block your vision. You should be able to see straight ahead and side to side.

To Wear a Helmet or Not To Wear a Helmet: When to Play It Safe

There are several sports that don't require wearing a helmet. But if you or your child is involved in rugby or soccer, or another sport where helmets are optional, that doesn’t mean you're in the clear.

"It's important to base any decision about whether or not to wear a helmet in conjunction with your sports neurologist," notes Dr. Kutcher. "Your past medical history and current health status may still warrant the use of a helmet."

Unsure whether you're at risk of sustaining a head injury? Get a brain health baseline evaluation. Proper consideration of your brain health includes a physical examination, along with a personal and family medical and neurological history. It also offers you an opportunity to learn how to best protect your head.

Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher is a sports neurologist at the Henry Ford Concussion and Sports Neurology Clinic and the global director of the Kutcher Clinic.

Want to learn more? Henry Ford Health System sports medicine experts are treating the whole athlete, in a whole new way. From nutrition to neurology, and from injury prevention to treatment of sports-related conditions, they can give your athlete a unique game plan.

Visit henryford.com/sports or call (313) 972-4216 for an appointment within 24 business hours.

The Dangers of Returning to a Sport Too Soon After an Injury

September 12, 2023

Henry Ford HealthWhen you've been hit with an injury, it's natural to want to get back to your regular activities as soon as possible. In fact, it's not uncommon for athletes to sidestep doctors' orders and return to the field or the court before an injury has healed.

"It doesn’t matter how much you train, or how much you prepare, injuries are going to happen, especially if you're an athlete," says Jamie Schwab, an athletic trainer at Henry Ford Health System. "But the real trouble arises when athletes try to play through their pain without allowing sufficient time for recovery."

Risks Of Returning Too Soon After Injury

If you sprain your ankle during a cross country run, it can be tempting to finish the race. Unfortunately, hiding your pain and powering through the activity can actually make matters worse.

"If you continue to work out after suffering from an injury, you run the risk of furthering that injury," Schwab says. So what began as a minor ankle sprain can evolve into a major sprain that sidelines you for weeks.

Returning to play after surgery demands extra precautions. "Athletes are a lot more susceptible to re-injury after returning from surgery, especially if they don't complete the entire 9-month or year-long rehabilitation protocol," Schwab says. In some cases, you can exacerbate an injury to such a degree that you'll never be able to participate in the same capacity.

A Safe Return To Play

The road back to play after an injury is a long and winding one. Before you can even consider returning to exercise, you need to reduce swelling, get pain under control and get your range of motion back to almost normal.

"The recovery process takes time," Schwab says. "But if you stick with it, and you take it seriously, it's going to be a whole lot easier for you to return to the playing field in a timely manner."

Once you get pain and swelling under control, you can focus on agility and weight exercises that will help you regain strength and slowly return to baseline. The key tenets for a safer return to play:

Be honest about your abilities: "So many athletes are afraid to tell the truth," Schwab says. "But if you're hurting and you're not competing at your full potential, you're letting your team down and yourself down, too." Even worse, you could increase your risk of further injury.

Focus on building strength: Strength training is critical. It can help you become faster, stronger and more agile on the field. It can also help you recover more quickly after an injury.

Listen to your body: If something doesn't feel right, pay attention to it. Talk to your athletic trainer or a physical therapist to get to the bottom of what's bugging you and put a plan in place to address it.

Boosting Performance Over The Long Haul

Unfortunately, not every coach and athletic trainer stresses the importance of a maintenance program. In fact, focused training and maintenance exercises are key to preventing injuries in the first place.

"The rehabilitation exercises you begin doing on day one after injury need to be maintained at least three to four times each week, indefinitely," Schwab says. "If you follow that regimen, all of your muscular nagging strains will no longer be a problem because your body is constantly adapting to the stresses. It's conditioned, it's strong, it can withstand the constant changes in direction."

Most importantly, don't be afraid to try complementary strategies. Practice using a foam roller, try cupping to release tension in the muscles and enhance blood flow and consider getting a monthly massage.

Jamie Schwab, AT, ATC, SCAT, CSCS, is an athletic trainer with Henry Ford Sports Medicine and works with student athletes at Edsel Ford High School. She is a National Strength and Conditioning Association-certified strength and conditioning specialist.

To find a sports medicine doctor or athletic trainer at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com/sports.