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Health

Can mouthguards and football helmets really prevent concussion?

The growing concern over concussions has ushered in new products designed to prevent or treat the mild traumatic brain injuries. But do any of them really work? Here's a look at some of the most common claims:

Mouthguards

The claim: After a blow to the jaw, the force travels upward toward the base of the brain. The makers of Brain-Pad mouthguards says its "dual arch" design "secures and cushions" the jaw, protecting it from brain-damaging impacts.

The reality: No published evidence exists to show that any mouthguard prevents concussions, said Jason Mihalek, an expert in the biomechanics related to head trauma at the University of North Carolina. Nor have mouthguards been shown to reduce the severity of a head blow, he said. Two mouthguard manufacturers, Shock Doctor and Battle Sports Science, have backed away from claims that they may prevent concussions. "Anecdotally we think they do, but there's no scientific proof," said Jay Turkbas, Shock Doctor's senior vice president of product development and marketing.

The bottom line: Wear mouthguards because they can prevent dental and facial injuries.

Football helmets

The claim: The Xenith X1, which has a series of specially placed shock absorbers, "provides outstanding protection to minimize the likelihood of a concussive episode."

The reality: For years, manufacturers focused on protecting the skull from fractures, and guidelines from the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment don't specifically address concussion risk. Still, a recent biomechanical impact study by Virginia Tech researchers found that new football helmets were better than older models at reducing the risk of concussions that some offered more protection than others.

The bottom line: Football helmets are getting better at reducing concussion risk, but not every team can afford new helmets. The Virginia Tech researchers also found that more expensive helmets didn't necessarily offer more protection. Ratings can be found at http://www.sbes.vt.edu through the National Impact Database; the Xenith X1 earned four of five stars.

Supplements

The claim: "Specific nutrients found in Sports Brain Guard formula have been shown to improve the brain's resistance to injury … making recovery faster when it occurs," according to the company's website.

The reality: There are no studies on Sports Brain Guard but there's good research on the nutrients themselves, said Dr. Russell Blaylock, the retired neurosurgeon who created the formula. However, any potential benefits have only been shown in animals, said Michael Bergeron, director of Sanford Health's National Institute for Athletic Health & Performance in Sioux Falls. For example, studies have shown that giving animals magnesium before a traumatic brain injury had a protective effect. "But human studies don't show any improvement with magnesium before or after, and some show it can worsen outcomes," said Bergeron.

The bottom line: Eating a varied and balanced diet before and after – especially getting sufficient calories in the first few days following a brain injury – can strengthen the body's defenses and help with repair, said Bergeron.

Soccer headgear

The claim: "Full 90 headguards reduce the impact response of head to head contact by 33 percent, according to a FIFA funded study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine," the Full 90 Web site states.

The reality: The study found that headgear lowered risks for players in collisions with other players, but the benefits were not limited to the Full 90 design. Headgear did not reduce concussion risk when it came to heading the soccer ball, said engineer Chris Withnall, a co-author of the study.

The bottom line: To protect your head when going after the ball, use proper technique. Striking the ball forcefully rather than letting it bounce off your head will tense neck muscles, connecting your head to the mass of the body and reducing the severity of impact, Withnall said. It's also important to make sure the ball is not overinflated, he said, and that young players do not learn heading with full-size soccer balls.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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