March 1, 2006
Helmet Use While Skiing and Snowboarding
Amy Movius, MD
The excitement of the winter Olympics combined with snow on the ground has many people anxious to hit the slopes. As you grab your skis or snowboard, please remember your helmet as well. Head injury is the most frequent reason for hospital admission from a skiing or snowboarding injury and, in fact, is the most common cause of death from such injuries.
Bicycle helmet use has greatly decreased the risk of head injury from bicycle accidents. It stands to reason that helmets would protect skiers and snowboarders as well. However, it is a subject that had not been closely researched and helmet use remains purely optional. Two studies - one from Norway, the other from Quebec – were recently published evaluating the protective value of helmet use during alpine skiing and snowboarding. These large studies confirmed that there is a significant protective value to using a helmet. The risk of head injury during an accident is decreased by around 60% with a helmet. In both studies the ski patrols, who are the first responders to accidents, were the source of injury information. The protection of helmet use is probably even greater than reported because of helmeted skiers or boarders in accidents who the patrols never met because they escaped injury altogether. Likewise, the reports did not evaluate the helmet wearers for correct fit and use, which would only improve the protective effect.
Helmet use was found to be highest among children. While this is good, the benefit of using a helmet crosses all ages, ski or snowboarding abilities, equipment type and other variables. The bottom-line is that helmets protect everyone. When adults wear bicycle helmets, the children around them use bicycle helmets. It makes sense that setting this example would be important with ski helmets too.
The effect of helmet use on neck injuries is not clear. One of the studies showed a possible benefit, the other that neck injuries may be worse with helmet use. It is unclear because the number of neck injuries is so small. The important thing to remember is that neck injuries associated with skiing or snowboarding are rare, head injuries are not. Fear of neck injury should not be a reason to skip helmet use.
Lastly, though helmet use is recommended when using a snowmobile (or ATV) it is not nearly as protective as it is for skiing and snowboarding. Snowmobiles and ATVs are heavy and high speed vehicles and the protection afforded by any helmet is limited during an accident. Maine is plagued with tragic accidents and deaths related to snowmobile use yearly. These vehicles should be used with extreme caution and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against any use in children less than 16yrs.
If the Olympics left you inspired to hit the slopes, go for it! It’s great to stay active and fit in winter and you can further imitate your favorite Olympian by wearing your helmet.