They may look goofy, be a little hot and mess up your hairdo, but there are many solid reasons why you should wear a helmet when you’re out on the football field, on your bike, downhill skiing or engaging in other potentially risky sports. While helmets haven’t been proven to prevent concussions, they can decrease the severity of a head injury and protect you from an injury altogether.
But what most might not realize is that not every helmet is created equal. Yes, all helmets are designed to protect your noggin, but their designs can vary given the sport.
“Each type of helmet is designed to help protect your head from different kinds of impacts,” said Tracey Fejt, RN, trauma outreach and injury prevention coordinator at Banner Children’s at Desert in Mesa, AZ. “Wearing a helmet designed for other activities may not protect your head as effectively.”
“There are many considerations that go into the purpose and use of a helmet, including comfort, strength of protection, visibility, ease of use and style or aesthetics,” added Matthew Steele, DO, a sports medicine physician with Banner Health in Glendale, AZ. “Some helmets can be worn for multiple activities, but you should never assume that.”
How to find the right helmet
Tip #1: Don’t grab the first helmet you find. At your local Walmart and Target you may find a few types of helmets, but those would just be skimming the surface of the types of helmets there are out there. There are helmets specific to road biking, BMX, downhill mountain biking, skateboarding, motocross, skiing, mountaineering, white water rafting and bull riding—just to name a few. So, the first thing you want to do is to check the manufacturer’s instructions to make sure you’re using the proper helmet for your sport or activity.
[Check out this helpful diagram regarding the type of helmet you should get for each activity. You can use this diagram to help you narrow down your search.]
Tip #2: Get a helmet that is approved by the correct agency for the activity. There are safety standards for most (but not all) types of helmets. These standards are made to ensure the helmet will do what it’s supposed to do.
“For instance, bicycle and motorcycle helmets must comply with mandatory federal safety standards,” Dr. Steele said. “Helmets for other sports are typically subject to voluntary safety standards. The applicable standards are set forth by various committees depending on the sport or activity.”
These agencies include:
- American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM)
- Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)
- Department of Transportation (DOT)
- American National Standards Institute (ANSI)
- National Operating Committee on Standards in Athletic Equipment (NOSCAE)
- Snell Memorial Foundation
“Helmets that meet a particular standard will contain a special label or marking (usually inside the helmet) saying it meets the standard,” Fejt said. “Don’t rely solely on how it looks or the marketing claims made—always function and safety over fashion.”
Tip #3: Understanding what the helmet can do and can’t do is equally important. Be wary of claims that a particular helmet can reduce or prevent concussions.
“The materials used in most helmets are designed to absorb high energy impacts, which have the potential to cause significant harm to the skull and brain,” Dr. Steele said. “But the fact is, as shown in multiple studies, including a study discussing safety equipment in high school football players, that no specific brand or type of helmet significantly reduces the risk of sports-related concussions.”
Tip #4: Replace when necessary. All good things don’t last forever—even helmets. Some helmets are designed to take on multiple impacts, while others are not. Make sure you replace any helmet that is involved in a crash, damaged, you’ve outgrown or have had for more than 5 years.
“Football helmets are designed to withstand multiple impacts, but despite this tolerance, you’ll want to replace it if there are visible signs of impairment such as cracks, dents or other destruction to the shell or protective liner,” Dr. Steele said. “Bicycle helmets, however, have foam material that crushes on impact that will likely not protect you from additional falls or collisions. You’ll want to replace this type of helmet promptly.”
How to ensure your helmet fits properly
To ensure optimal protection, Fejt shared the following tips:
- Ensure proper positioning: Place the helmet on your head and ensure it sits level on your head, just over your eyebrows and evenly between your ears. If you walk into a wall, the helmet should hit before your nose does.
- Straps should fit snugly: Adjust the straps to form a V-shape under and slightly in front of your ears. Ensure no more than one or two fingers can fit under the strap when buckled.
- Perform a shake test: Shake your head side-to-side and up and down. If your helmet rocks forward or backward, retighten the chin strap and test again.
Helmets can reduce your risk for traumatic brain injuries and injuries altogether, but they’re only part of the safety equation.
“In the end, no helmet will ever substitute participant awareness in preventing concussions and other head injuries,” Dr. Steele said. “We all play a role in decreasing our risk of a head injury associated with an activity or sport.”
Keep your head up and eyes open, obey posted signs and signals and be mindful of your surroundings.