Faster speeds and complicated maneuvers are leading to more head and spine injuries among downhill skiers and snowboarders.
While the overall risk of getting hurt on the slopes remains relatively low, catastrophic injuries, particularly among young male snowboarders, are on the rise, according to a new review
of 24 studies from 10 countries in the current issue of the journal Injury Prevention. The review notes that the increased risk coincides with the growing popularity of acrobatic and high-speed activities in winter sports.
Much of the risky behavior is fueled by snowboarding, a sport that rewards speed and attracts teenaged and young adult males, according to the researchers. In the United States, snowboarders are nearly twice as likely to be injured as skiers. A Norwegian report found that snowboarders are three to four times more likely than skiers to be hurt, and a study from Canada found that snowboarders were 50 percent more likely than skiers to suffer head and neck injuries.
The new review cites a 2002 report showing that the overall risk is two to three injuries per 1,000 skier days, compared to five to eight injuries in the 1970s. The reduction is due primarily to better ski equipment. But in several of the studies reviewed, the risk of severe head injury was found to have increased over time, with death rates as high as two per million skier visits.
In one study of 1,214 skiers and snowboarders admitted to a hospital in Colorado, 16 of the injured died. Skiers and snowboarders under the age of 35 were found to be three times more likely than older participants to sustain a head injury, and male skiers and snowboarders were twice as likely as females to suffer head injuries. Although 70 percent of the head injuries were concussions, 14 percent resulted in serious harm to the brain.
Helmet use is associated with a 22 percent to 60 percent reduction in head injury risk, but helmets remain a surprisingly controversial accessory. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that half of head injuries on the slopes could be prevented by helmets, but a survey of several United States ski resorts found that helmets were worn by just one in eight skiers and snowboarders. Notably, the most-skilled athletes were most likely to wear a helmet.
Although there has been some speculation that helmets may increase the odds of spinal injury in children, the new review cites three studies showing that helmets do not raise such a risk. It is true that many parents buy helmets too big, so that kids will grow into them; a poorly fitted helmet offers less protection, impeding vision and muffling hearing. Although more study is needed, the review authors conclude that the benefits of helmet use in preventing serious head injury far outweigh any risk.
Many winter athletes are injuring themselves simply by going too fast. Most serious injuries result from collisions with other skiers and snowboarders, or with trees, rocks and chairlift poles. To minimize the risk, ski experts recommend that beginners take lessons. Never ski or snowboard alone, and ask an expert skier or instructor to check out your equipment before hitting the slopes. Stay on marked trails that match your skill level, pay attention to hazards like rocks and trees, and quit before becoming too tired.