Just in time for winter ski season: New Johns Hopkins research has found the use of helmets by skiers and snowboarders can greatly reduce the risk and severity of head injuries and saves lives.
The findings, published in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, also debunk long-held beliefs by some experts that the use of helmets gives athletes a false sense of security and promotes more dangerous daredevil behavior that could actually increase injuries.
"There really is a great case to be made for wearing helmets," said lead researcher Dr. Adil H. Haider, an associate professor of surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "By increasing awareness and giving people scientific proof, we hope behavior changes will follow."
About 600,000 injuries are reported annually among the estimated 10 million Americans who ski or snowboard each year. Up to 20 percent are head injuries, when skiers or snowboarders run into trees or fall on the ground. Twenty-two percent of those head injuries are severe enough to cause loss of consciousness, concussion, or more traumatic head injuries that lead to hospitalization, death, or long-term disability.
To reach their conclusions, Haider and his colleagues on the Injury Control and Violence Prevention Committee at the Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma reviewed 16 studies on injury in recreational skiers and snowboarders. The results showed that helmets are lifesavers and do not increase the risk of injury.
As a result, the Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma now recommends all skiers and snowboarders wear helmets.
No laws in the United States mandate the use of helmets among recreational skiers and snowboarders. In Austria, children are required to wear helmets, and efforts have been made to pass similar laws across Europe.
Surveys by the National Ski Areas Association have found ski helmet use is on the rise. Overall, some 57 percent of skiers and snowboarders wore helmets during the 2009-2010 ski season, compared with 25 percent during the 2002-2003 ski season.
Haider said some have argued wearing a helmet on the slopes lowers visibility, hampers hearing, and encourages risky behavior.
"These are all just excuses," he said. "Our research shows none of those theories hold water."
The high-profile death in 2009 of actress Natasha Richardson after on a Canadian ski slope brought attention to the issue of helmet use. She was not wearing one. Haider said Richardson hit her head when she fell backward on a beginner's "bunny" slope, and wearing a helmet likely would have prevented her death.
The study was funded, in part, by the National Institutes of Health.