It was no surprise that full padding plus gloves offered the most protection against linear impacts. But the padding did little to protect against rotational impacts; padding is primarily set up to stop something from colliding head-on with whatever surface it protects, rather than slowing rotation.
On top of that, the effects of getting hit accumulate fastest in the fighters who do without headgear.
The link between repeated concussions and some kinds of impairment is strong. Muhammed Ali's Parkinson's disease has been attributed to the hits he took as a boxer, and there are many cases of brain injuries to athletes that weren't immediately obvious. Four former National Football league players filed a lawsuit alleging that the league ignored the effects and left them with lingering meical problems. So for any athlete in a rough sport these questions are pretty important.
Full disclosure: I myself occasionally teach a martial arts class and spent a year and a half training as a kickboxer. For those of us who train this kind of research is helpful, as it points to the kinds of cumulative injuries that are more likely to happen without teachers, athletes and students noticing. Before seeing this study I thought headgear provided more protection than it evidently does.
NEWS: Face Shield May Prevent Military Brain Injuries
There is a tendency among some to forego headgear when sparring, mostly because it gets in the way of peripheral vision. The study reinforces the idea that younger fighters -– be it in mixed martial arts or boxing -– should wear headgear, and worry about the vision later.
On the other hand, orthodox boxers might tend to take more shots to the head than kickboxers or mixed marital artists do. An interesting avenue of research would be to see which sport is "safer" in terms of accumulated head injuries, and break down the more or less likely sources of concussions.
Is there a good way to design headgear so that it minimizes rotational impacts? That's an interesting question in itself, and maybe future research will answer it.
The team published their research Tuesday in the Journal of Neurosurgery.
Image: U.S. Department of Defense / Wikimedia Commons