February 9, 2010 Ė Whether it was a game-saving tackle, a spill on the slopes or a trip over the handlebars, countless Canadians have been spared from serious injury because of a helmet. Though current designs protect the head from trauma and brain damage, they do not safeguard against neck fractures that can also cause spinal cord injuries and paralysis, which is often incurable. With an average of 13,000 spinal cord injuries a year in North America, many of which are associated with paralysis, prevention is the solution.
Doctor Peter Cripton of the University of British Columbia (UBC) is the co-inventor, along with UBC PhD student Tim Nelson, of the Pro-Neck-Tor helmet. The result of research supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), this helmet contains a patent-pending device to provide protection from spinal cord injuries.
In a head-first impact scenario, the body continues to travel with momentum after the head is stopped against a surface. With nowhere for this energy to go, the spinal column must withstand the force. Due to the momentum, this can be equivalent to the weight of five people. The neck is unable to support so much power and the result can be neck fracture, spinal cord injury and paralysis.
The Pro-Neck-Tor features a unique dual-shell design. While the exterior functions like a normal helmet, it is connected to a moveable inner shell by a pin-and-guide system that is engaged only when the head hits at a certain speed and angle. When impact occurs, the inner shell tilts the head forward or backward to bend the spine into a posture that dissipates the force of impact away from the neck and cervical region.
Dr. Cripton and his team have conducted preliminary testing with a mechanical head and neck model. Depending on the angle of impact, the movable inner shell reduced forces to the neck by up to 56 percent. Torques were reduced by up to 72 percent.
The Pro-Neck-Tor design was funded by NSERCís Idea to Innovation program, which accelerates development of promising technology and promotes its transfer to Canadian companies. This helmet has great potential for any impact-prone sport, but Dr. Cripton notes it will likely be marketed to hockey or football players first because of the higher rate of head-first, impact-related spine injuries in these sports than in others.
The helmet is still in the design stage and it could be anywhere from three to ten years before it hits the market. Dr. Cripton and his team plan to make variant designs for different sports and expect the Pro-Neck-Tor to weigh about the same as standard helmets.
Now thatís tackling a problem head on.