Doctor’s advice: wear a helmet
March 28, 2002
As a neurosurgeon who has been treating and studying brain injuries in skiers and snowboarders for years, I’ve been following with great interest the recent events and policy development in Aspen.
I would like to commend the Aspen Skiing Co. for being the first to take a very bold step toward reducing the risk of brain injuries and death on the ski slopes of Colorado.
Although brain injuries account for only 2.5 to 10 percent of all ski-related injuries, they account for 70 to 90 percent of the fatalities, and are the leading cause of disability from accidents on the slopes.
There has been much controversy and debate regarding the potential benefits of helmets for skiers and snowboarders. For the past seven years we have been studying brain injuries in skiers and snowboarders admitted to our Level I Trauma Center in Denver (St. Anthony Central Hospital), and can confidently conclude that helmets reduce the incidence and severity of brain injuries in skiers and snowboarders.
Of more than 400 skiers and boarders admitted to our hospital with brain injuries, only 19 were wearing helmets, and they have all made good recoveries, despite some very severe accidents. Those not wearing helmets have not fared as well; 15 percent were admitted in a coma, and 4 percent died.
Our data has shown that helmets reduce the risk of a brain injury on the slopes by 74% percent, and among those that do sustain a brain injury with a helmet, the injury is much less severe, despite higher impact accidents in the helmeted group.
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In other words, it takes a bigger hit to get a head injury with a helmet on, and even then the injury is less severe.
Contrary to common myths and misconceptions, our data has also shown that helmets do offer significant protection at high speeds (greater than the often quoted 12 to 14 mph), helmets do not increase the risk of spine injuries (even in children), and helmets do not increase the incidence of other types of injuries (i.e. they do not seem to cause reckless behavior or a false sense of security).
Nonetheless, it is important to remember that helmets cannot prevent all brain injuries or fatalities, and the most important defense against injury is responsible skiing and snowriding. A seat belt and an air bag are not a license to drive recklessly, and a helmet is not a license to ski or ride recklessly or beyond one’s limits.
As adults, we must all know our abilities and not exceed them dangerously, and we must decide for ourselves if our brain is worth protecting with a helmet. For our children, the Aspen Skiing Co. has been the first to take a bold but logical and compassionate step to help ensure their safety.
A. Stewart Levy, M.D.
St. Anthony Central Hospital