What is MIPS and How Can It Protect You from Brain Injury?
Ski Expert Ian Greenwood explains what MIPS is and what to look out for when buying a ski helmet so you can be sure your head is protected.
Introduction and a Little History
The world of snow sports is inundated with endless jargon: Gore-Tex, ABS, camber, rocker, DIN, the list goes on and on, and, it can be overwhelming for the uninitiated. Helmet technology is no different. There are hundreds and hundreds of helmets on the market these days, and the sheer diversity of technology and acronyms used can feel unnecessary. However, this diversity, while frustrating to comb through, is the result of ski helmet technology continuing to evolve for the better. One of the more promising leaps in the story of snow sport helmet safety is the invention of the Multi-Directional Impact Protection System or MIPS. More on that later, but first, we need to know the why of MIPS technology, before we get into the nitty-gritty.
Skiers didn’t always wear ski helmets. It took several high-profile deaths in the racing community during the mid-1900s for their inclusion to be taken seriously. By the 1960s, hardshell helmets had been made mandatory on ski racecourses throughout the world, but, for the most part, recreational skiers still neglected their use. Even with innovations by Bell, in the 1980s and 1990s, a bike helmet manufacturer, few casual skiers donned a brain bucket as recently as 2005 (stats gathered that year showed that only 9% of recreational skiers were wearing a helmet—shocking!).
The Numbers Don’t Lie
But who the heck cares if someone wears a helmet? It’s a matter of preference, you might say. Sure, feeling the wind in your hair while skiing feels great, though it’s important to know the stats before you go helmetless. Research compiled by the Micheli Center, an organization composed of sports physical therapists, demonstrates that 20% of snowsports-related injuries involve the head region. While that might sound like a small percentage, head injuries carry some of the greatest health risk factors, like concussions, or their more fearsome cousin, traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). Of these reported head injuries, around 30% resulted in a loss of consciousness. It’s worth noting that concussions don’t necessitate a loss of consciousness to occur. Untreated concussions and TBIs can result in a variety of problematic symptoms, like cognitive issues, mood swings, comas, or, in some cases, death.
Surprisingly, the Micheli Center notes that standard helmets haven't historically reduced the risk of concussions. According to data that they pulled from the National Trauma Data Bank, helmet use didn’t correlate with the occurrence of concussions. These statistics are joined by an article published in _The Telegraph_, a UK newspaper, which cited research data from 2011 and 2012 that suggested that helmets were not preventing concussions. Wait, what? Why should I bother wearing a helmet, then? It’s a good question to ask, and luckily the Micheli Center has a few pieces of that puzzle. While helmets may not prevent concussions, they do reduce their severity and reduce the occurrence of TBIs, which account for roughly 88% of snow sports fatalities and their associated severe brain injuries. So, if you’re looking to avoid TBI or an even-more severe concussion, a helmet is still a great bet.
These stats highlight one of the greatest challenges that helmet manufacturers face today— how do you make a helmet that does an even better job of mitigating concussion risk?
The Story and Tech Behind the MIPS System
Remember that funny acronym I mentioned in the introduction of this article? Yeah, MIPS, that’s the one. MIPS is the brainchild of a partnership between Swedish neurosurgeon Hans von Holst, and Peter Halldin, a Swedish researcher (they met at the Royal Institute of Technology, in Stockholm, Sweden). Their work presents one of the greatest leaps forward in addressing the looming question of concussions. While working together, the pair noticed two things. First, that many people were suffering head injuries while wearing a helmet, and second, that most head injuries result from crashes that occur at an angle. Angled crashes exert a specific kind of force, called rotational force, which stems from angular velocity. At the time of Holst and Haldin’s research, most articles regarding head injuries focused on the more infrequent crash type—straight crashes. With this knowledge, they set about creating a helmet design that responded to angled crashes and the associated rotational motion and rotational strain.
Their research culminated in the creation of the slip-tech liner. This liner is sandwiched between the helmet foam and the helmet's shell and offers up to 15 degrees of rotation. During a crash, the shell of the helmet rotates with the aid of the slip tech liners’ low friction layers and directs energy away from the user's skull. Thus, the core of MIPS technology was born. Today, you can see the yellow logo of MIPS emblazoned on a variety of helmet brands, like Giro, POC, or Sweet Protection.
Despite all the excitement around MIPS, an article on Peloton’s website, a cycling company, notes that the researchers and brand behind MIPS cannot outright state that their technology is the safest on the market. This is due to their fear of legal action—should they state that they make the ‘safest’ helmet technology on the market, and should one of their users still get hurt, they could wind up in a vat of hot water.
What do the numbers about MIPS say, then? Is it really safer? The only stat that MIPS will offer up is rotational impact data. All MIPS helmets must be 10% better at handling rotational impacts and angled impacts than their non-MIPS counterparts to receive a certification. Thankfully, the brand behind MIPS, whose hands are tied by fear of legal action, aren’t the only ones who can speak to the effectiveness of their products.
WaveCel and Some Perspective from the Experts
There are several independent groups that research the effectiveness of snow sports helmets. Many of them have published findings that suggest helmets equipped with the MIPS layer are indeed more effective than those without. For instance, the Annals of Biomedical Engineering, a scholarly journal, found that helmets equipped with a MIPS slip liner were most effective at reducing rotational forces in the instance of a head impact. Another excellent third-party resource for helmet efficacy is the Summation of Tests for Analysis of Risks or STAR. STAR is published by researchers at Virginia Tech University. Their tests score helmets on a scale from one to five stars; these scores are the result of a rigorous testing process that determines concussion risk reduction by testing helmets. A quick review of their scoreboard shows that all of the top ten contenders employ MIPS, which offers encouraging support of the technology.
MIPS is not the only slip liner technology on the market, though. WaveCel, a recent corporate rival, employs a different design to reach a similar end (with a few other technical differences), the reduction of rotational forces in the case of an impact, among other benefits. So, which is better? In a bombshell statement, a WaveCel-partnering bike helmet manufacturer came forward and claimed that their new helmets, which employed WaveCel, prevented concussions in 99% of impacts, and were 48x as effective as traditional foam liner helmets. This statement caused quite a stir. An article in Outside magazine titled “Trek’s WaveCel Helmet Technology Is Causing Controversy” was published in regard to bicycle helmets, and the team behind MIPS quickly issued a press release that stated they could not replicate the findings behind the WaveCel statement. Controversy aside, a peer-reviewed French research article, which studied both MIPS and WaveCel, stated that both technologies appear effective at mitigating concussion risk, although they also stated more research is necessary.
At this point, you’re probably a bit overwhelmed and confused. MIPS or WaveCel? How do I decide? Can a helmet really prevent concussions? The answer to these questions is surprisingly straightforward. Despite the corporate jostling, it's becoming increasingly clear that both MIPS and WaveCel offer superior protection in comparison to the foam liner helmets of the past. Both these technologies appear on Virginia Tech’s STAR list with a score of five stars in several different brands of helmets. So, don’t overthink it too much, and don't worry about all the funny jargon, like angular acceleration, or relative motion. Leave that to the crash scientists.
Helmets these days are far superior to those of the past across the board. The easiest choice to make is to decide to wear a helmet. If you do that, you’re already considerably safer, no matter which tech you reach for. If you have any questions or want to find the right helmet, reach out to a Ski Expert here on Curated.