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The Informed Parent

Increase Your Helmet IQ

by Shanna R. Cox, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Published on Sep. 18, 2006

Learning about helmets may save your life or that of a loved one. Helmets are used in multiple differing sport and recreational activities to protect against both superficial and serious head injury. In order to use a helmet appropriately, let's review the details of how to pick out a helmet, size it, and care for it.

The first step in utilizing a helmet is realizing not only to wear it, but to wear it every time! Helmets can't work dangling off a bicycle handle or sitting on a shelf in the garage. Set a good example by wearing yours and encouraging others to do the same.

In purchasing a helmet, you must pick one that will work for the activity intended for its use. There is not one helmet that will serve for all activities. A good bicycle helmet may be used for roller-blading and bicycling, but that is about as multifunctional as can be expected. Other sports generally require their own specific type of helmet. Some you may not have considered are equestrian, lacrosse, or go-kart type helmets.

Before you decide to purchase your particular helmet, check the safety specifications available. The most well known of these is the mandatory Consumer Product Safety Commission's (CPSC) standard for bicycle helmets. Do not buy a bicycle, BMX or downhill bicycle helmet that does not meet this standard. You can assure this quality by checking the inside liner for a certification label.

The CPSC standard does not apply to all types of helmets. So, if you are purchasing one for another activity educate yourself about the standards available. Three other common regulatory agencies are the National Operating Committee on Standards in Athletic Equipment for baseball, football, ice hockey and lacrosse. The Department of Transportation standard is for motor cross, go-carting, and snowmobiling. The ASTM International Standard is for skateboarding and skiing.

A good helmet should fit snug to the head. It should not move front-to-back or side-to-side and should sit level on the head, not tilted forward or back. The chin strap should be tight enough that the helmet will stay on with a fall. Straps usually can be adjusted easily and a helmet should be sized specifically for the individual that will use it. Therefore, the first helmet purchase will usually require an in-person fit. Don't guess about how a helmet will fit your child. Hair and head circumferences can be deceiving! Also remember, young children and their heads grow quickly. Helmets should be updated for growth frequently, even if they are "not worn out yet".

Once you have the helmet, use it! But, remember it's function is protection. If any helmet type shows visible damage after an accident it must be replaced. After a single impact event bicycle helmets must be replaced. The foam is not intended to protect against multiple falls. Other helmet types may withstand multiple impact that is associated with the particular sport. But check the manufacturer recommendation prior to assuming you or your child are sufficiently protected. Remember, helmets are not toys. They should be removed when not engaged in the activity they are designed to support so that a secondary injury does not occur.

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