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Deep impact: football helmet sensors reveal how hard high-schoolers hit each other

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Measuring the impacts of tackles could help scientists design better, safer helmets.

When was the last time you banged your head against a wall at 20 miles per hour? Probably never, unless you happen to be a high-school football player. New research at the University of Michigan is using sensors in players helmets to figure out just what kind of hit causes a concussion, and which just causes that nice, satisfying "crunch" sound.

Concussions in football aren't new. We've long known that repeated blows to the head aren't good for you. But what many people are just beginning to realize is that it's not just NFL players who have to worry about concussions. These force detecting sensors showed that an average high school player is taking about 650 impacts to the head each season, and some players topped out at 2,000. He found that concussions occurred when the hit comes in at 90 to 100g of force. That's like smashing your head against a wall at 20 miles per hour.

The UM research also showed that harder hits don't necessarily mean more concussions. "Every kid and every brain is different," the press release says. The impact has lots of parameters, from angle, to force, to speed whiplash.

According to the New York Times, at least 50 football players in high-school or younger have died from head injuries on the field between 1997 and 2007. Since the helmet is what is supposed to protect players from those crushing blows, it makes sense to use them to detect just how much force they're absorbing. The NFL is testing similar technology for their own players, who experience hits far harder than high-school players. People can even buy their own impact sensor that fits into the helmet to see how hard they've been hit.

While it's easy to focus on the high-powered, highly paid NFL players who incur concussions, the UM research suggests that it doesn't take an elite athlete to do elite damage. Even high-school players have to worry about concussions, and studying exactly how and when they happen could help them build better helmets to protect players.

Via: University of Michigan

Image: Wikimedia Commons, US Navy

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Rose Eveleth

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Rose Eveleth is a freelance writer, producer and designer based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, OnEarth, Discover, New York Times, Story Collider and Radiolab. She holds degrees from the University of California, San Diego and New York University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure