The recent death of actress Natasha Richardson from a head injury she suffered while skiing has shed light on the risks of such sports-related injuries and how to prevent them.
Although most on-field collisions or spills don't result in death, they can result in concussions. In fact, minor head injuries are quite common - and often go unreported because coaches, players and parents don't realize the extent of the injuries.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says about 300,000 Americans suffer sports-related concussions annually. However, Gerard Gioia, chief of the Division of Pediatric Neuropsychology at Children's National Medical Center, says the number of sports-related concussions may actually number more than 3 million a year.
Mr. Gioia directs the hospital's Safe Concussion Outcome and Recovery and Education Program (SCORE). He says he sees patients from obvious contact sports such as football and ice hockey, but also from pursuits such as volleyball, basketball, cheerleading, wrestling and soccer.
“A very important point is that this is not simply a football injury,” he says. “We know different sports have different risks, but the risk is not zero in most of them.”
That is why several products are on the market to protect athletes' heads while they play seeming non-contact sports. Two growing companies make padded headbands that provide collision protection.
Full90 (www.full90.com) head guards have been approved as protective gear by most soccer organizations, including FIFA, U.S. Soccer and high school athletic associations. The company says the head guard, which wraps around the head above the ears, has been proved to lessen the chances of a concussion by 50 percent. It resembles a flexible hockey helmet that leaves the top part of the head uncovered.
Forcefield Headbands (force29.com) look more like traditional cloth sweatbands but have shock-absorbent polymer material inside the cloth, which comes in a variety of team colors.
Forcefield Headbands were invented by a New York nurse and sports parent after her son suffered an injury on the basketball court.
Company spokesman Larry Moskowitz says the headbands appeal to soccer players because the bands' compact size will not change the direction of the ball if the player heads it.
Charles Aronica, a chiropractor and youth soccer coach in Commack, N.Y., says he introduced Forcefield headbands to his players two years ago after he noticed they were sometimes hesitant to learn the proper mechanics of the game.
“They can properly go after the ball now and not injure their head and neck,” he says. “They can play with more confidence.”
Mr. Gioia says the sports industry is making “some nice advances” in efforts to reduce head injury. That includes innovations in football helmets to reduce concussions at all levels, from youth leagues to pros.
“It is really the dawning of a new era in recognizing what we need to do,” Mr. Gioia says. “The football helmet was originally invented to stop skull fractures. We've done a good job with that. Now we are working on how do we bring [innovations] to a different place to stop concussions.
“The new headbands and helmets are meant to be like the crumple zone of a car,” he says. “What the crumple zone does is make sure the force is not on the driver. In this case, the driver is the child's brain.”