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UBC researchers believe their Pro-Neck-Tor helmet could help prevent spinal cord injuries in the future. ((CBC))

Helmets are supposed to protect the head, but researchers at the University of British Columbia say their Pro-Neck-Tor helmet can also protect the spine.

A typical bike helmet can absorb a head-first impact, but when the cyclist’s head stops, the body keeps moving, and that can fracture the spine. Researchers claim the prototype helmet unveiled Tuesday can dissipate up to 56 per cent of the impact.

According to a UBC news release, a head-first impact in sports can load the neck with as much force as the weight of more than five people.

The UBC helmet has two shells: the outer shell takes the impact, and the inner shell rotates to dissipate the direct impact to the cervical spine. The cervical spine is the weakest part of the back, and the UBC team is hopeful protecting it will prevent most neck compressions and fractures.

Bill Reichelt, the head trainer for the B.C. Lions football club for 32 years, said after all the neck injuries he has seen, he welcomes a helmet that could help prevent injury.

"Anything at all that makes our job better and the players safer, then we welcome it with open arms," said Reichelt.

Peter Cripton, a mechanical engineer on the research team at the UBC injury biomechanics laboratory, said the technology could help prevent injury in a number of sports.

"Everything from equestrian to football, to hockey, to mountain biking, snowboarding, motorcycling, and so on, are areas where we think potentially this helmet can help," said Clipton.

Tim Nelson, one of the PhD students on the research team, said he likes to play some of those sports and wanted to work on something he could use himself.

"I've had some really close calls with head-first impacts myself and also have a couple friends who’ve had these injuries happen to them," said Nelson.

The helmet can only be demonstrated on a mechanical approximation, and has not yet been tested on people, but the engineers hope to get the finished product to market within three years.

"Such impact could result in spinal cord injury and permanent paralysis … The forces were reduced by 27 to 56 per cent and torques 19 to 72 per cent, depending on the angle of the impact," said the release.

To take the concept further than a prototype, the team is appealing to the sports companies for more research funding.