Steamboat Springs I spent last weekend shaking the rust off of my skis at Arapahoe Basin, getting a few turns in ahead of Scholarship Day and the start of the 2011-12 season in Steamboat. While heading down a run with particularly poor visibility, a snowboarder in front of me caught his heel edge and smacked the back of his head against the snow-covered ice. I quickly stopped to check on the gentleman, who was confused and unsure about what had just happened. By the time ski patrol had arrived, it was fairly clear that the rider was suffering from a likely concussion with no other serious injuries. After a couple of days, this particular boarder will be ready to hit the slopes again. However, this particular scenario could have had a much different outcome had he not been wearing a helmet.
During the past 15 years, the number of serious injuries occurring during winter sports has increased. Among those injuries, the leading cause of death among snowboarders and skiers is impact with a static object or another person. Such impacts are the ones responsible for the head injuries that killed celebrities Michael Kennedy, Sonny Bono and Natasha Richardson, among others. The reality is that head injuries should be a concern to anyone who enjoys resort or backcountry activities in the winter. In 2009, more than 16,000 individuals were treated in emergency rooms across America for head injuries related to skiing or snowboarding. Unfortunately, despite the risk of head injury, the National Ski Areas Association found that only 57 percent of skiers and snowboarders wore helmets in 2009, indicating that we need to increase awareness about the importance of wearing helmets on the snow. I could bore you with more statistics, but the bottom line is that several studies have found that wearing a helmet can cut the risk of serious brain injury while skiing or snowboarding by anywhere from 22 to 60 percent.
Helmets, however, are not the panacea for head injuries on the slopes. While they certainly help protect your noggin, skiers and boarders must not have a false sense of security when they buckle on their helmet. As important as helmets are, making responsible choices on the slopes such as controlling your speed, being aware of the people around you, staying within ski area boundaries and being realistic about your abilities to navigate terrain are just as critical.
So with the last day before the start of the official season here in Steamboat, take the opportunity to add a helmet to your list of must-have accessories. If you own a helmet, remember that it needs to be replaced after several impacts to guarantee safety. No matter your skill level, beginner to expert, there is no good reason not to wear a helmet. If you are going to hit the slopes, make sure you are hitting them with a helmet on your head.
Third-year medical student from the University of Colorado School of Medicine