The recent release of Concussion has helped fuel the national debate surrounding the long-term effects head and spinal injuries have on football players. Perhaps surprisingly new research published in the Journal of Athletic Training suggests playing without a helmet may be what makes the sport much safer.

Based on first-year results of a two-year study, researchers at the University of New Hampshire find helmetless-tackling drills, called the HuTTTM intervention program, is effective in reducing head impacts by 28 percent in one season. The innovative technique alters tackling behavior and is meant to reduce risk of head injury. The study put the technique to the test among 50 football players at the University of New Hampshire, a NCAA Division I team.

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The athletes were divided into two groups: an intervention group and a control group. The players in the intervention group performed five-minute tackling drills without their helmets and shoulder pads twice a week during pre-season, and once a week during football season. Drills consisted of repeatedly tackling into an upright pad, tackling dummy, or a teammate holding a padded shield, while the control group performed non-contact football skills at the same time, rate, and duration.

Both groups were supervised by the UNH football coaching staff. The players wore a head-impact sensor behind their right ear to monitor the frequency, location, and acceleration of all the head impacts.

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Researchers found that players in the intervention group had experienced 30 percent fewer head impacts per exposure than the control group. And at the end of one football season, the intervention group that had completed the helmetless-tackling training program had experienced 30 percent fewer head impacts per exposure than the control group.

"This behavior modification is not only about alleviating head impacts that can cause injuries now, but reducing the risk of concussive impacts that can lead to long-term complications later in life," Erik Swartz, who led the study, said in a statement. "These helmetless drills could help to make it safer to play football."

High school football is responsible for 47 percent of all concussions sustained while playing sports, with 33 percent of them occurring during practice, according to Head Case. Swartz and his colleagues said high school and college football players could each sustain more than 1,000 impacts in a season, while youth players may sustain 100 during that same timeframe.

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More research is needed to determine if this intervention will also be effective in younger players with less experience and physical maturity.

"The idea of taking off the football helmet during practice to reduce head impact may seem counterintuitive to the sport," Swartz said. "But the findings show that preventing head impacts, which can contribute to spine and head injuries like concussions, may be found in behavior modification like these drills."

Source: Swartz E, Broglio S, Cook S, et al. Early Results of a Helmetless-Tackling Intervention to Decrease Head Impacts in Football Players. Journal of Athletic Training. 2015.