Have helmets reduced head injuries on the slopes?

Head injuries account for up to 20% of the 600,000 ski and snowboarding-related injuries in North America annually. In New Zealand there were about 13,000 injuries caused by snow-sports last year. The combined cost of this was more than twenty million dollars ($16,461,223 for skiing injuries and $6,533,251 for snowboarding injuries). More than 500 of these injuries were to the head. When compared to many other ‘snow injuries’ these are generally associated with more morbidity, a longer recovery period and a greater total treatment cost.

The use of helmets by skiers and snowboarders has increased dramatically over the past decade and clearly decreases the risk and severity of head injuries (as compared to non-helmeted participants) in skiing and snowboarding. It is likely that the majority of participants now use a helmet – where this was previously very uncommon. Despite this increased use, improvements in helmet technology and better fitting, serious injuries are on the rise.

Two factors have been proposed as possible explanations for this.

  1. Skiers and snowboarders are increasingly pushing the limits and the sport is becoming more ‘extreme’. People are skiing faster, going bigger and skiing or riding terrain that was not imagined 15 years ago. This is likely to be the major contributor to the risk of injury.
  2. The increased usage of cameras and recording of video footage is another factor that is also important to consider. It has been shown that attaching a camera to a helmet compromises its performance. This has been cited as one of the reasons for the severity of the injury that former racing driver Michael Schumacher sustained when he fell skiing. During this fall his helmet, which had a camera attached, split in two when he struck his head on a rock.

So the take-home message should be always wear a helmet, ski or ride within your limits and be careful about how (and where) you mount your GoPro. If you do sustain a head injury up the mountain, or you have a patient that does, remember that we run a fully funded concussion clinic. Any patient that presents within ten days of their injury can receive funded multi-disciplinary assessment and treatment from our specialists.