Magnets in helmets might make football safer

Repulsive force could slow impact, reduce concussion danger, research suggests

football tackle in a college game

CONCUSSION REPELLENT A new study tests the idea of adding magnets to football helmets as a repellent that would reduce the force of head-to-head collisions.

mattradickal/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Adding magnets to football helmets could reduce the risk of concussions, new research suggests. When two players collide, the magnets in their helmets would repel each other, reducing the force of the collision.

“All helmet design companies and manufacturers have the same approach, which is to try to disperse the impact energy after the impact’s already occurred,” neuroscientist Raymond Colello said November 15 at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.

The magnets, he says, would put a brake on the impact before it happens.

The idea hasn’t been tested yet in helmets with real players, said Judy Cameron, a neuroscientist at the University of Pittsburgh. “But a lot of thought has gone into it, and the data that was shown about the ability of the magnets to actually repel each other looked extremely promising.” 

On the field, football players can run at nearly 20 miles per hour and can experience up to 150 g’s of force upon impact. Concussions readily occur at impacts greater than 100 g’s. Every year there are 100,000 concussions at all levels of play among the nearly 1.2 million people who play football in the United States.

Colello, of Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, is testing magnets made in China from the rare-earth element neodymium. They are the most powerful commercially available magnets and weigh about one-third of a pound each (football helmets weigh from 3.5 to 5.5 pounds). When placed one-fourth of an inch away from each other, two magnets with their same poles face-to-face exert nearly 100 pounds of repulsive force.

Colello tested his magnets with the same procedure that the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment uses to evaluate football helmets. He placed magnets on the front of a weight and let it drop from various heights onto another magnet. The heights Colello tested (between 6 inches and 4 feet) represent the impact forces athletes normally experience on the playing field.

“At 48 inches, if you dropped a standard helmet and it hit a stationary object, it would create 120 g’s of force,” says Colello. “With the magnets we drop that below 100 g’s.”

The magnets would complement existing helmet safety features. Colello speculates that adding magnets to a helmet would raise the price by $50 to $100. (Professional helmets today can cost several hundred dollars.) Amateur players, who will not experience impacts as crushing as pros do, could use helmets with cheaper, less powerful magnets.

Though the magnets do attract metallic objects, the National Football League prohibits athletes from wearing jewelry during games. Another safety concern is whether the magnets are dangerous to have near human heads. Colello says that a 30 minute- to one-hour MRI procedure produces magnetic fields 10 to 30 times as strong as those in helmet magnets.

Colello is now awaiting customized arc-shaped magnets that can be fitted inside helmets so he can begin field-testing them. First he will run crash-test dummy heads donning the helmets on a zip line; when the heads collide, accelerometers will measure the linear and rotational forces caused by the impact.

If the magnets make it through field tests, they could theoretically reduce the relative risk of concussions by up to 80 percent without changing the appearance or intensity of the game, Colello says.

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