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Wearing a Ski Helmet May Not Reduce Likelihood of a Traumatic Brain Injury

Michael Schumacher sustained a life-threatening head injury while skiing in France on Sunday. Schumacher, the most successful Formula One driver in history, was wearing a helmet, which probably does not come as a surprise. In recent years, experts have charted the increasing presence of helmets on slopes and half pipes. Unfortunately, the helmet did not prevent Schumacher’s injury.

He sustained a traumatic brain injury when he fell and hit his head on a rock. This occurred while he was navigating an un-groomed area at a resort in Méribel, France. Despite the helmet, Schumacher sustained injuries that have left him fighting for his life in a hospital in Grenoble, France.

The 44 year old former grand prix driver underwent a two hour operation in Grenoble, France yesterday. This was the second surgical procedure since his accident on Sunday. The operation was undertaken to remove a large blood clot on the left outer side of his brain, the opposite side to Sunday’s surgery. Dr. Jean-Francois Payen, a member of his surgical team, said that Schumacher, a seven-time winner of the world drivers’ championship in Formula One, remained in critical condition. It could be days or weeks, he said, if Schumacher survives, before any assessment could be made about whether he had suffered any permanent brain damage.

This traumatic brain injury has focused attention on an unsettling trend: Skiers and snowboarders in the United States are wearing helmets more than ever. In fact, 70 percent of all participants (nearly triple the number from 2003) wear helmets while skiing or snowboarding.

According to the National Ski Areas Association, in spite of this trend there has been no reduction in the number of snow-sports-related fatalities or brain injuries in the country.

Experts believe that the reason helmet use has been unable to prevent serious head injuries like Schumacher’s is the fact that more skiers and snowboarders are engaging in risky behaviors. Nowadays, these individuals engage in riskier behavior by skiing faster, jumping higher and going out of bounds.

Chris Davenport, a professional big-mountain skier, says that the equipment available to skiers and snowboarders today allows them to do new things and people pushing their own limits has surpassed their ability to utilize self control.

Experts agree on one element underpinning the trend: an increase in risk-taking behaviors that they said the snow-sports industry had embraced. Recently, many resorts have built bigger features in their terrain parks and improved access to extreme terrains. Simultaneously, advances in equipment have made it easier to ski faster, perform tricks and venture out of bounds.

“There’s a push toward faster, higher, pushing the limits being the norm, not the exception,” said Nina Winans, a sports medicine physician at Tahoe Forest MultiSpecialty Clinics in Truckee, Calif. “So, all of those factors — terrain parks, jumping cliffs and opening terrain that maybe wasn’t open in the past — play into some of these statistics with injuries.”

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. Recently, public awareness regarding traumatic brain injuries has spiked, possible as a result of growing media attention TBIs have been getting in sports. This is largely due to the NFL concussion lawsuits. Additionally, several high profile individuals such as Sonny Bono and Natasha Richardson have had fatal occurrences while skiing. Currently, the state of New Jersey is the only state that mandates helmet use. The Garden State mandates helmets for those 17 years old and under.

Experts say helmets have reduced the numbers of less serious head injuries, such as scalp lacerations, by 30 percent to 50 percent. The medical professionals treating Schumacher say he would not have survived his fall if he was without a helmet. Yet still, growing evidence indicates that helmets do not prevent some more serious injuries, like the tearing of brain tissue, said Jasper Shealy, a professor emeritus at Rochester Institute of Technology. Shealy has been studying snow-sports-related injuries at Sugarbush resort in Vermont for over 30 years. He said this could be because those injuries typically involve a rotational component that today’s helmets just can’t mitigate. His research had not found any decline in what he called P.S.H.I.’s, an acronym for potentially serious head injuries. This classification includes concussions, skull fractures, closed head injuries, traumatic brain injuries and deaths by head injury. Head injuries remain the leading cause of deaths in skiing and snowboarding, Shealy said, with about 30 in the United States each year. “The helmet does a very good job at protecting against skull lacerations and skull fractures, but it doesn’t seem to have much effect on concussions or T.B.I.’s,” Shealy said, regarding traumatic brain injuries. “Our guess is that this is due to the fact that those injuries are occurring at such a high magnitude of energy that they overwhelm what a helmet can do for you.” That could be what happened to Sarah Burke, a four-time X Games super pipe gold medalist who was fatally injured two years ago while skiing in Park City, Utah. That could be what happened to Schumacher.

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.

At Sibley Dolman Gipe Accident Injury Lawyers, PA we recommend helmets for skiing and snowboarding, regardless of claims that wearing helmets may not decrease your chances of suffering a TBI. Better safe than sorry is our motto. But keep in mind that wearing a helmet is never enough. You need to ski or snowboard cautiously and to not take risks that are beyond your skill set. Even the most accomplished skiers and snowboarders get fatally injured on ungroomed terrain. Have fun, but practice safety first. If you have been suffered a traumatic brain injury as a result of the negligence of another, please give Sibley Dolman Gipe Accident Injury Lawyers, PA a call at 727-451-6900.

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