Background: Although numerous observational studies have demonstrated a protective effect of motorcycle helmets against head injury, the degree of protection against specific head injury types remains unclear. Experimental biomechanics studies involving cadavers, animals, and computer models have established that head injuries have varying etiologies. This retrospective cross-sectional study compared helmet protection against skull fracture, cerebral contusion, intracranial hemorrhage, and cerebral concussion in a consecutive series of motorcycle operators involved in recent traffic crashes in Kentucky.
Methods: Police collision reports linked to hospital inpatient and emergency department (ED) claims were analyzed for the period 2008 to 2012. Motorcycle operators with known helmet use who were not killed at the crash scene were included in the study. Helmet use was ascertained from the police report. Skull fracture, cerebral contusion, intracranial hemorrhage, and cerebral concussion were identified from International Classification of Diseases, Ninth Revision, Clinical Modification (ICD-9-CM) codes on the claims records. The relative risks of each type of head injury for helmeted versus unprotected operators were estimated using generalized estimating equations.
Results: Helmets offer substantial protection against skull fracture (relative risk [RR] = 0.31, 95% confidence interval [CI], 0.23, 0.34), cerebral contusion (RR = 0.29, 95% CI, 0.16, 0.53), and intracranial hemorrhage (RR = 0.47, 95% CI, 0.35, 0.63). The findings pertaining to uncomplicated concussion (RR = 0.80, 95% CI, 0.64, 1.01) were inconclusive. A modest protective effect (20% risk reduction) was suggested by the relative risk estimate, but the 95% confidence interval included the null value.
Conclusions: Motorcycle helmets were associated with a 69% reduction in skull fractures, 71% reduction in cerebral contusion, and 53% reduction in intracranial hemorrhage. This study finds that current motorcycle helmets do not protect equally against all types of head injury. Efforts to improve rotational acceleration management in motorcycle helmets should be considered.
Keywords: Motor vehicle crash; concussion; probabilistic record linkage; skull fracture; traumatic brain injury.