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On the slopes, helmets save lives

JOHNS HOPKINS (US) — Skiers and snowboarders who wear helmets significantly cut their risk of head injury and the severity of the injuries that do occur.

The finding that helmets save lives and reduce injuries debunks the argument that wearing helmets promotes a false sense of security and dangerous behavior on the slopes, researchers say.

“There really is a great case to be made for wearing helmets,” says Adil H. Haider, associate professor of surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and leader of the study, published in the November issue of the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery.

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“By increasing awareness and giving people scientific proof, we hope behavior changes will follow.”

Statistics show that roughly 10 million Americans ski or snowboard each year in the United States, with approximately 600,000 injuries reported annually. Up to 20 percent of those are head injuries, which mostly occur when skiers or snowboarders hit inanimate objects such as trees or the ground. Twenty-two percent of those head injuries are severe enough to cause loss of consciousness, concussion, or even worse injuries. Often the injured are not wearing helmets.

Traumatic head injuries among winter sports enthusiasts lead to hospitalization, death, or long-term disability and contribute to increased health care spending. Head injuries are the chief cause of death among skiers and snowboarders.

In their study, Haider and his colleagues on the Injury Control and Violence Prevention Committee at the Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma searched the medical literature and reviewed in detail 16 published studies on injury in recreational skiers and snowboarders. Their analysis showed that helmets are lifesavers and do not increase the risk of injury. The Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma now recommends that all skiers and snowboarders wear helmets.

There are no laws in the US mandating the use of helmets among recreational skiers and snowboarders. In Austria, children are legally required to wear helmets, and across Europe there are efforts to pass similar legislation.

Data from the 2009 to 2010 National Demographic Study done by the National Ski Areas Association, encompassing more than 130,000 interviews across the United States, showed that ski helmet use is on the rise. Overall, some 57 percent of skiers and snowboarders wore helmets during the 2009-2010 ski season, compared with 25 percent during the 2002-2003 ski season.

Some skiers argue that wearing a helmet on the slopes hampers their ability to see and hear what is going on around them and encourages risky behavior, because helmet wearers feel invincible. Some have also suggested that wearing a helmet increases the torque and whiplash felt when a skier does go down, making neck and cervical spine injury more likely.

“These are all just excuses,” Haider says. “Our research shows none of those theories hold water.”

The high-profile death in 2009 of actress Natasha Richardson after an injury sustained on a Canadian ski slope brought attention to the issue of helmet use. She was not wearing one.

Haider, director of Johns Hopkins’ Center for Surgical Trials and Outcomes Research, says Richardson hit her head when she fell backward at a low speed while on a beginner’s “bunny” slope. Wearing a helmet likely would have prevented lethal head injury, he says.

The study was supported by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences and the American College of Surgeons’ C. James Carrico Fellowship for the Study of Trauma and Critical Care.

Source: Johns Hopkins University

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