Increasing ski helmet use isn’t reducing serious brain injuries

Unsettling trend of accidents could be down to young enthusiasts engaging in risky manoeuvres.

Written by New York Times | Beaver Creek | Published: January 3, 2014 2:42 am

KELLEY McMILLAN

The fact that Michael Schumacher was wearing a helmet when he sustained a life-threatening head injury while skiing in France on Sunday probably did not come as a surprise to experts who have charted the increasing presence of helmets on slopes and halfpipes in recent years. The fact that the helmet did not prevent Schumacher’s injury probably did not surprise them,either.

Schumacher,the most successful Formula One driver in history,sustained a traumatic brain injury when he fell and hit his head on a rock while navigating an off-piste,or ungroomed,area at a resort in Meribel,France. Although he was wearing a helmet,he sustained injuries that have left him fighting for his life in a hospital in Grenoble,France.

Schumacher’s injury also focused attention on an unsettling trend. Although skiers and snowboarders in the United States are wearing helmets more than ever — 70 percent of all participants,nearly triple the number from 2003 — there has been no reduction in the number of snow-sports-related fatalities or brain injuries in the country,according to the National Ski Areas Association.

MORE EXTREME

Experts ascribe that seemingly implausible correlation to the inability of helmets to prevent serious head injuries like Schumacher’s and to the fact that more skiers and snowboarders are engaging in risky behaviours: skiing faster,jumping higher and going out of bounds.

“The equipment we have now allows us to do things we really couldn’t do before,and people’s pushing limits has sort of surpassed people’s ability to control themselves,” said Chris Davenport,a professional big-mountain skier.

Dave Byrd,the ski association’s director of risk management,attributed the surge in helmet use to grass-roots efforts by resorts,helmet manufacturers and medical professionals to encourage their use. He also cited growing public awareness about brain injuries,a result of persistent news media attention on the issue in sports,particularly in the N.F.L.,and several high-profile skiing deaths,like those of Sonny Bono and Natasha Richardson. New Jersey is the only state that mandates helmets for use,for children 17 and under.

The increase in helmet use has had positive results. Experts say helmets have reduced the numbers of less serious head injuries,like scalp lacerations,by 30 percent to 50 percent,and Schumacher’s doctors say he would not have survived his fall had he not worn a helmet. But growing evidence indicates that helmets do not prevent some more serious injuries,like the tearing of delicate brain tissue,said Jasper Shealy,a professor emeritus at Rochester Institute of Technology.

Helmets not enough

Shealy,who has been studying snow-sports-related injuries at Sugarbush resort in Vermont for more than 30 years,said that could be because those injuries typically involve a rotational component that today’s helmets cannot mitigate.

He said his research had not found any decline in what he called P.S.H.I.’s,for potentially serious head injuries,a classification that includes concussion,skull fracture,closed head injury,traumatic brain injury and death by head injury.

In fact,some studies indicate that the number of snow-sports-related head injuries has increased. A 2012 study at the Western Michigan University School of Medicine on head injuries among skiers and snowboarders in the United States found that the number of head injuries increased 60 percent in a seven-year period,from 9,308 in 2004 to 14,947 in 2010,even as helmet use increased by an almost identical percentage over the same period. A March 2013 study by the University of Washington concluded that the number of snow-sports-related head injuries among youths and adolescents increased 250 percent from 1996 to 2010.

Experts agree that the roots of the trend are complicated and could be related to increased awareness about brain injuries and reporting of them. But they also agreed on one element underpinning the trend: an increase in risk-taking behaviours that they said the snow-sports industry had embraced. In recent years,many resorts have built bigger features in their terrain parks and improved access to more extreme terrain. At the same time,advances in equipment have made it easier to ski faster,perform tricks and venture out of bounds.

No change in Schumacher’s condition

GRENOBLE: Formula One legend Michael Schumacher remained “stable” but was still in a critical condition today after four nights in hospital battling severe brain injuries following a skiing accident in France.

The German racing great remained in an induced coma and a critical condition,with his wife Corinna,16-year-old daughter Gina-Maria and 14-year-old son Mick at his bedside in the French Alpine city of Grenoble.

The seven-time world champion’s fight for survival after he fell and slammed his head on a rock Sunday has shocked legions of fans used to seeing him cheat death on the racing tracks.

“At the moment,he is stable,” the 44-year-old’s manager Sabine Kehm had told reporters massed outside the hospital in Grenoble on Tuesday.

— afp

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