The study relies on data from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS), which estimates that there were 68,761 reports of head injuries sustained while skiing or snowboarding presented to U.S. emergency departments from 2004-2010, with males (68.8 percent of total reported head injuries), snowboarders (57.9 percent), and young riders between the ages of 11-17 (47.7 percent) most likely to be injured.
Helmet use clearly isn’t a solve-all solution, especially since most consumer-level helmets are only designed to prevent injury at impact in the 12-15 mile per hour range.
— Dr. Mark Christensen
According to Christensen’s abstract, “The percentage of helmeted riders that sustained head injuries increased from 36.7 percent to 57.99 percent over the six-year period, which correlates with National Ski Areas Association (NSSA) data on increases in helmet use in the general population.”
So what’s behind that counterintuitive correlation?
“My assumptions are that those increases parallel the increase in terrain park use and the level of difficulty and risk in these sports over the last decade,”Christensen said, “and also that we’re simply seeing more people reporting head injuries because there’s been more education and awareness around them.
“Ten years ago when someone had a significant impact to the head … they’d just kind of walk it off. … Now just about anybody who hits their head — I’m an ER physician and I see it all the time — will go in and get it checked out, because there’s been a tremendous increase in awareness about traumatic brain injury thanks to all the high-profile stories about NFL athletes with concussions.”
It’s not just NFL athletes, either: concussions and traumatic brain injuries have plagued action sports in recent years, with high-profile injury stories like snowboarder Kevin Pearce, skateboarder Adam Taylor, and BMX riders Kevin Pearce, Jay Eggleston and (most recently) Brett Banasiewicz helping to spread awareness. Each of those athletes were wearing helmets at the time of their injury; each of those injuries also might have been much, much worse without them.
Christensen said his study has prompted a surprising number of questions from the press about the base-level effectiveness of helmets for skiers and snowboarders, and whether they’re even worth wearing, but that those questions are missing the point.
One aspect of his analysis fully confirms the effectiveness of helmets: Children under 10 years old — the most likely to be wearing helmets — were the only age group in the study to buck the trend, showing a significant decrease (from 11.7 percent of all reported head injuries to a mere 4.6 percent) over the period of the study.
“That was interesting because the biggest increase in helmet use has also been in the youngest population,” Christensen said. “And that’s the only age group where we saw any real improvement that went against the overall trend.”
When evaluating the study, the important thing to bear in mind is that “we’re not trying to say helmets are bad,” Christensen emphasized. “Helmets are important and probably prevent a lot of serious injuries. But I’ve seen other studies showing that helmet wearers are more likely to take more risks, so there’s a need there for more education and recognizing that skiing or snowboarding safely and wearing a helmet is what’s going to prevent injuries, not just wearing helmets alone.
“Helmet use clearly isn’t a solve-all solution, especially since most consumer-level helmets are only designed to prevent injury at impact in the 12-15 mile per hour range. We should approach helmet use like we approach wearing seatbelts in a car: Just because we’re wearing a seatbelt doesn’t mean we can drive recklessly.”