Safety on the Slopes

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(MORRISTOWN, N.J.) -- With skiing and snowboarding being two of the most popular sports in the U.S. and 9.9 million Americans taking part in these activities every year, seasoned skiers and boarders know that falling is an accepted part of the learning curve for beginners, and an inevitable event among even the most experienced in the sports.

Thankfully the risk of injury is low. The risk of being injured on the mountain is 1 in 500, the risk of sustaining a serious head injury is 1 in 5,000, and the risk of being killed on the mountain is 1 in 1 million. In this regard, skiing and snowboarding are safer sports than bike riding or swimming.

Nonetheless, head injuries can and will occur on the mountain, so it is important to take steps to prevent an injury and to know what to do if an injury occurs. The most common head injury occurs from falling and hitting the snow or ice, says Dr. Christopher Magovern, a cardiac surgeon at Morristown Medical Center in Morristown, N.J.  This is a particularly common injury for beginner skiers or boarders. Skiers usually strike the side of their heads, and boarders usually strike the back of their heads. Another, more dangerous injury occurs from colliding with a stationary object, commonly another skier or a tree.

In an effort to limit head injuries on the mountain, Dr. Magovern says your goals should be to: 1) prevent these sorts of falls in the first place, 2) decrease your risk of head injury by wearing a helmet, and 3) if you do sustain a head injury, be able to recognize the symptoms and know when to seek medical attention.

The first line of defense against head injuries is to ski responsibly -- that means always ski under control. When you stop, make sure you’re in a spot where others can see you, and stay away from trees, unless you really know what you’re doing -- they’re unforgiving.

The second line of defense is to wear a helmet. Can wearing a helmet make a difference? You bet it can. A helmet will reduce the risk of head injury, but it won’t make you invincible. What we’ve learned about wearing helmets is that it will decrease your risk of head injury by 20 percent to 50 percent -- it can mean the difference between a major head injury and a minor head injury, and it can mean the difference between a minor head injury and no injury at all.

But helmets do have limitations, Magovern notes. If you’re barreling down the mountain at 60 mph like Franz Klammer, injuries you sustain in a fall may overwhelm the protective capabilities of a helmet.
The average recreational ski or snowboarding helmet is designed to provide protection when skiing at speeds of less than 15 mph. Because it is common for skiers and boarders to reach speeds of 25-40 mph on some intermediate trails, recognize that, at these speeds, a helmet may not provide complete protection. For a helmet to provide proper protection at those speeds, it would have to be 7 inches thick, 20 inches wide, and weigh 10 pounds...and that’s simply unrealistic.

Magovern says the bottom line is that although helmets cannot provide ultimate protection for all falls, they will prevent or lessen the degree of head trauma for most falls -- and because there’s no good reason not to wear a helmet, just strap one on.

He adds that order to get the most protection from your helmet, it’s important that it fit properly. First of all, never use a bicycle helmet or skateboarding helmet; they are not designed for skiing or snowboarding. Your helmet should be snug, but not tight. Finally, ensure that your chinstrap is always fastened securely.

As recently as 2011, 46 states in this country had motorcycle helmet laws, 37 states had bicycle helmet laws, and not a single state had any law mandating the use of helmets on the slopes. Our European colleagues have been ahead of us in this regard -- in 2009, Austria mandated that all children less than 14 years old must wear helmets.

But things are changing; in April 2011, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey signed a bill that mandates that children less than 18 years old must wear helmets while skiing or snowboarding or their parents will face fines that range from $25-$50. Similar legislation is pending in New York.

Finally, the last line of defense against head injuries on the mountain is to be able to promptly recognize an injury when it occurs, so treatment is not delayed.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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