Impact Sensors for Helmets
Summary: Many brands of impact sensors are being sold to be added to helmets to detect hard impacts. They have limited usefulness for bicycle helmets, and limited accuracy at best. Most measure blows to the helmet, not the g's the head inside experienced after the helmet's energy management. The biggest risk is that they will fail to signal a concussive event or fail to signal damage to the helmet. Researchers believe they can signal hard impacts but can not diagnose concussions. They are primarily useful in multi-impact sports for tracking sub-concussive blows.
Impact sensors (usually accelerometers) attached to football players' heads made news about 2005, and devices to attach to helmets have been marketed by a number of companies since.
A sensor attached to a helmet can only record the g's that the helmet sees, not what the head inside experienced. Since the helmet is managing the energy, there will be a huge difference, with the head seeing far less shock. The original Simbex HIT system for football players mounts an array of accelerometers against the player's head, not on the outside shell of the helmet.
Accelerometers are linear, registering g's in only one direction. To capture all of the energy in an impact, seven is the minimum number of accelerometers to use, oriented in different planes. Eleven would be more accurate. Most of the devices marketed now use only one accelerometer, or at most three.
The Simbex product uses multiple accelerometers held against the head, and gathers the data on the sidelines of a game through a wireless connection. It works, and can alert the coach when a player takes a very hard hit. Simbex and the college football researchers using the system have gathered millions of hits in their data collecting. But correlating the hits and concussions has proven elusive. There is still no agreement on the exact profile of a concussive hit. Some players have experienced 140 peak g's without an injury that can be diagnosed clinically. Some have been concussed at levels below 80 g's. Results vary depending on the direction of the blow, area of the impact and other factors. There is no precise way yet to define the characteristics of the hit that produces a concussion. Peak g has to be important, and rotational energy is believed to be another key element. Even a straight linear hit involves some rotational component. But what is happening inside the head as the brain moves, as different brain components with different densities and placement move in different ways, contributes to the nerve and blood vessel strain that is thought to be a big determinant of concussion. Simbex says their system is best used by coaches to identify players who are experiencing many hard hits and permit the coach to train that player to avoid them in the future.
Back in 2006 we bought some samples of a device called the Shok-SpotR and asked experts for an evaluation. The device is designed to be added to a hard shell helmet, and registers g's above a certain level by turning a spot red. We got mixed feedback from the lab techs and other experts, who saw it as a device to register helmet damage, since it did not register g's to the head. Some felt that even assuming it functioned correctly, the spot might not change in some crashes that would damage the helmet. Most believed that visual inspection and measuring for foam crush after a crash is the best way to determine if a helmet has been damaged. But since many consumers are not experienced in looking at damaged helmets and may not recognize damage under a shell, there may still be a place for this product if you wear a helmet with a rigid hard shell. Our samples were $25 plus shipping, from a supplier we found with Google.
As concern about concussions has grown in recent years other devices have come on the market, including Impact Alert, Shockbox, the Stabilizer First Alert (attaches to a hockey face mask) and many others. There are also sensors with electronics in a mouth guard. Those at least try to measure g's to the head, not the helmet, but must assume that the jaw remains firmly clamped on the mouthguard through the impact sequence. We found all of those and more with this Google search. It will be more current than any list we post here would be. We know nothing of the effectiveness of any of the devices except the Simbex HIT system, a reliable indicator of hits on a sports field.
In April of 2019 the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a press release"warning the public not to use medical devices marketed to consumers that claim to help assess, diagnose or manage head injury, including concussion, traumatic brain injury (TBI) or mild TBI." The only devices the FDA has cleared must be used by a health care professional, and "there are currently no devices to aid in assessing concussion that should be used by consumers on their own." That is expert advice that none of us should ignore.
This mid-2018 post on the web by child athlete advocate Brooke de Lench represents a good review of the sensor field, except that it does not distinguish between sensors mounted on a helmet and those mounted against the head. She does make the point well that the sensors are primarily useful in multi-impact sports for tracking sub-concussive blows, not for diagnosing a concussive impact.
In 2016 the F08.53 Helmet and Headgear subcommittee of ASTM began developing a standard for the performance of sensors used to track head impacts. CPSC chairs the task group. The task group will have a difficult job, and the development of the standard may take some time. There has not been much progress as of late-2020. But eventually you may be able to buy an impact device with confidence that it meets a performance standard.
Bottom line: many of the sensors are designed for use with hard shell helmets. Most will not tell you much about how hard an impact your brain actually took or whether an injury has occurred. We do not know of a consumer product that will tell you if you have a concussion, and for bike riders a medical diagnosis of the symptoms you are experiencing will always be your best indicator. If you are crashing repeatedly and need to track the number of hits your helmet experiences, there are products to do that.
This page was revised on: October 24, 2020.