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Steelers neurosurgeon: Kevlar padding may decrease concussions

| Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Steelers linebacker James Harrison. (Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review)

James Harrison, worried about the long-term consequences of his “double-digit” bouts with concussion-like symptoms, now wears the same type of bullet-proof padding in his helmet that many soldiers in Afghanistan wear.

“There's no way I see myself playing without it,” said Harrison, who no longer has the postgame headaches he once had after every game.

About a dozen Steelers copied Harrison by adding the Kevlar padding, which can be implemented not only in helmets but as protective gear in all contact sports. Numerous Boston Bruins players wore the padding on their elbows, shins and skates to protect against broken bones and other impact injuries during their 2011 Stanley Cup run.

Steelers neurosurgeon Dr. Joseph Maroon is optimistic the 18- to 14-inch padding — which can be added to any football helmet made by any manufacturer — can significantly reduce the impact of the blunt-force blows that are so common in football. Such blows trigger a number of the concussions suffered in the NFL each season.

Maroon is hopeful of raising funds to conduct a Pittsburgh-based clinical study that would determine how much protection such padding offers. One high school team, for example, could be fitted with the pads, with the results compared to those of a team that doesn't wear the protection.

“The data thus far is very encouraging, but clearly, additional tests and evaluation are needed,” Maroon said.

The company that markets the protection, Unequal Technologies, doesn't advertise its EXO Skeleton CRT supplemental gear as a concussion preventer, but rather as a way to dramatically reduce the possibility of injuries.

“Nobody would or should say this is going to eliminate concussions from this or any other sport,” Maroon said. “It's like NASCAR — you're always going to have accidents. I don't think any technology is going to eliminate concussions, not with the forces and the momentum and the speed of the game. ... The goal is to reduce the possibility of a head injury.”

Harrison, who revealed last month that he has played numerous times after having undisclosed concussion-like symptoms, became the first NFL player to wear the thin, green padding after he broke an orbital bone last season.

“Now, sometimes, you'll hit somebody, and you wait for that w-h-o-o-s-h,” Harrison said, referring to the unsettling aftereffects of a big hit. “But you don't feel it. ... It's like you're on Novocaine.”

Harrison is hopeful that ending his career with such protection will help reduce the possibility of concussion-driven degenerative diseases later in life.

“I haven't had any blackouts since I started wearing it,” he said.

Bruins athletic trainer Don DelNegro called the protective gear his team's “secret weapon” when it won the Stanley Cup two seasons ago.

“A guy would come off the ice and say, ‘I caught one right in the shinny, and I never felt a thing,' ” DelNegro said.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at arobinson@tribweb.com.

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