Do Helmets Really Matter In Winter Sports?

By Dr. Molly Casey

Winter Sports and Helmet

Helmets aren’t always pretty and often folks feel that it may be too overprotective for recreational winter sports. That is just not true. Head injuries can have lasting effects -- and deaths do occur -- as a result of not wearing head protection during winter sports activities.

According to the National Ski Areas Association, the 10-year average through the 2015-16 season for fatal accidents at American ski resorts is 38 per season. It may not seem like a lot, but you don’t want to be a statistic.

Leaving your head unprotected while enjoying the great snowy outdoors is foolhardy and unnecessary. There are safe and even somewhat trendy options for protecting your head while participating in your favorite winter activity. Helmets can save lives.

Head Injuries

Head and neck injuries definitely occur in recreational winter sports. This article states that “injuries sustained during recreational skiing and snowboarding can cause significant morbidity and mortality among snow sport enthusiasts.” This means the injuries can be serious and have a strong and lasting effect on the person’s life and even cause death. California Congressman and entertainer Sonny Bono is among those who died while skiing without a helmet, as did Michael Kennedy, the son of political icon Robert F. Kennedy; they died within six days of each other.

Beyond the obvious personal health issues, the effects extend further as the article goes on to say that “traumatic head injuries from skiing and snowboarding crashes are an especially important cause of hospitalization, fatality and long term disability and also contribute significantly to healthcare expenditures.”

Helmets

While helmets can’t completely wipe out head injuries, they certainly can decrease the occurrence and/or effect if one does sustain a head collision. So wear one.

First and foremost, it’s best practice to go to a retailer who specializes in winter sports activity that has professional fitting to assist in the best helmet for your (or your child’s) head. Points to keep in mind before purchasing:

  • Pads even or level against the cheeks and forehead
  • Snug, not tight, with chin straps fastened
  • With helmet level one inch above the eyebrow, not touching back/nape of the neck
  • No shifting sideways or rolling back and forth as the person moves the head

If the helmet is cracked in any way or it has sustained a significant hit even without a crack, replace it because it may not be able to absorb another hit; you don’t want it to crack or shatter on impact. Seven-time Formula One racing champion Michael Schumacher had his helmet break when he fell and hit a rock during a skiing incident in 2013; out of the public eye since then, his brain injury reportedly left him unable to walk and he has difficulty communicating and remembering. Doctors said he would have died without the helmet.

Signs of a Head Injury

A helmet doesn’t guarantee no head injury, but will obviously help minimize the effects of a collision if one does occur. Outside of the extremely obvious, such as loss of consciousness, it is important to be aware of more mild yet serious signs indicating a head injury has been sustained.

  • Sustained headache
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Foggy or “out of sorts” feeling that doesn’t go away
  • Ringing in ears
  • Irritability
  • Sleeping more than usual
  • Sustained fatigue/drowsiness
  • Problems with speech

Actress Natasha Richardson, married to actor Liam Neeson at the time, died in 2009 after hitting her head while taking a beginning ski lesson. According to reports, she apparently felt fine and twice refused medical assistance, but began complaining of severe headaches within a few hours; she died two days later of epidural hematoma attributed to blunt force trauma.

Wear a helmet every single time you participate in winter sports such as skiing, snowboarding, or sledding, or any activity that could include a high speed head trauma, such as cycling, any motorsport, or ball activities such as baseball/softball. If the helmet sustains a significant hit, replace it no matter what.

If you were wearing a helmet and had a fall or accident, be conscious of how you feel and operate for the few days following. If you find you have any of the symptoms above, go to your doctor immediately and get evaluated. Recreational sports are fun. Safety in recreational sports is important. Your head matters. Keep it safe.

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