How Riding Helmets Protect Your Head

A biomechanical engineer explains how most modern riding helmets protect our heads and what they might protect against in the future, as well.

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how riding helmets protect your head
Dr. Stephanie Bonin is a former event rider and self-described nerdy horse person who loves computer modeling, which she uses to study brain injuries and helmet protection. | Photo: University of Kentucky
Stephanie Bonin, PhD, PE, a forensic engineer who studies injury biomechanics, works for the Southern California firm MEA Forensic. A former event rider and self-described nerdy horse person who loves computer modeling, she studies brain injuries and helmet protection. Her presentation at the inaugural Horse Industry Safety Summit, held April 23 at the University of Kentucky’s Spindletop Hall, in Lexington, reviewed how helmets protect a rider’s head.

In her research with MEA, Bonin examines how the human head responds to injury and evaluates the “crush” observed in a helmet to see what the head and brain experienced upon impact. Her research contributes to the concussion database by capturing head impact kinematics (a branch of classical mechanics that describes the motion of points, objects, and groups of objects without considering the forces that caused the motion), correlating kinematics to clinical diagnoses, and improving helmet protection.

“What is the head experiencing during a fall, and how do we know what to design a helmet for?” she said “What is the starting point? We have to understand what happens in order to make changes in helmet design.”

Bonin said brain injuries are typically classified as either focal (which includes hematomas, hemorrhages, contusions, skull fractures, and edema) or diffuse (which includes concussion and indicates that the injury happened throughout the brain tissue)

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