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Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Injuries in Avalanche Victims


In the Spring 2007 issue of High Altitude Medicine & Biology, published by the International Society for Mountain Medicine, there is an excellent article entitled Pattern and Severity of Injury in Avalanche Victims (Matthias Hohlreider et al, Volume 8, Number 1, page 56).

There is much discussion in the literature and at mountain medicine meetings about what types of injuries predominate, and the roles of specific anatomical injuries versus asphyxiation from burial under snow in deaths following entrapment of victims in an avalanche.

In this retrospective (looking backwards at medical records) study of avalanche victims who were brought to the University Hospital of Innsbruck, Austria between 1996 and 2005, some important observations were made. There were 105 victims with a total of 49 significant injuries. The limbs, spine, and chest were most commonly injured, but only 2 deaths out of the 36 deaths observed were attributed to injuries, both broken necks. One death was deemed due to hypothermia, and the remaining 33 deaths were felt to be due to asphyxia.

The authors point out that 100 to 150 people die in avalanche accidents each year in North America and Europe. If this study can be reasonably extrapolated to the entire population of avalanche victims, then this lends further support to the notion that rapid response and uncovering the victim (to allow him or her to breathe) is of paramount importance. Transceivers, devices to preserve the airway and provide oxygen, protective shields, and the like are critical adjuncts. While multiple-system trauma may certainly be noted in someone who has fallen roughly in unforgiving terrain composed of ice and boulders, the victim found alive and without an irreversible brain injury caused by oxygen deprivation has a decent chance of survival.

photo courtesy of Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research Davos

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Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.

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