The Best and Worst New Ideas in Concussion Prevention

Two recent studies out of universities give us reason to be excited—and dubious—about preventing concussions.

Two recent studies out of universities give us reason to be excited—but extremely dubious—about the direction of the fight against concussions.

First, the excitement. Researchers at the University of New Hampshire tested a counterintuitive approach to making football safer: Have players practice without helmets.

Is Football Safer With Helmetless Practice?

Dr. Eric Swartz observed that neck injuries went up after helmets were introduced into the sport, so his medical team worked with UNH's football coaches to adapt practice sessions so they could be safely performed sans head protection. Some members of the Wildcats continued to practice without helmets once a week throughout the season, while others resumed the normal routine of donning gear on their domes.

The encouraging results were published in the Journal of Athletic Training. The group that practiced without helmets suffered significantly fewer head impacts. Coaches credited the increased safety in part to better tackling form. In fact, those who practiced helmetless were found to be more effective and reliable tacklers as the season went on.

Making players safer and better at their sport? Sounds like a win-win.

Swartz and his team caution that these are only their initial findings, and more work needs to be done before they can make informed recommendations. But the early results seem to indicate that a focus on technique could help reduce head-to-head contact, which football parents are scared of.

Chocolate Milk? Really?

Now, the dubiousness. A study reported by the University of Maryland suggests that chocolate milk may help prevent injuries and reduce concussion-related symptoms. Not just any chocolate milk, but a particular chocolate milk product called 5th Quarter Fresh.

Keeping athletes safer by having them drink something many of them already enjoy sounds like another win-win. So what's the problem?

According to a number of nutrition experts, there are many. In a scathing review of the release, Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, Andrew Holtz, MPH, and health and science writer Kathryn Stone called the University's claims "out of bounds." Freedhoff et al. called the study "unsatisfactory" on nine out of 10 criteria, labeling its  explanation of the purported science "vague" and its conclusions "worrisome."

"The single biggest flaw? There are so many to choose from," Freedhoff said when reached for comment. "Most damning of all is the fact that not only aren't we told what measures supposedly improved with chocolate milk consumption, but that there isn't actually any study at all.

"In fact, the findings are so preliminary that both their hosted University and the researcher involved refused to comment on them to Health News Review's Andrew Holt on the grounds that they were too preliminary to discuss. How can findings be too preliminary to discuss, but not too preliminary to be featured in a hyperbolic press release?"

A spokesperson for the University of Maryland confirmed the findings were preliminary—which does seem to make the decision to publish an 855-word promotional press release curious.

Freedhoff and his co-authors said their main concern was that schools might begin distributing chocolate milk to athletes, believing the "uncontrolled and as yet unsubstantiated claim" that it might somehow protect them from head injury. Indeed, the release includes a statement from a school superintendent vowing to provide the beverage to all of the school's athletes.

"I would hate to see young football players taking these claims as licenses to play harder, get back on the field sooner, and risk serious injury," Freedhoff said.

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