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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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Risk-taking Behavior and Helmet Use in Skiers

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The general consensus in the medical community regarding helmet use and skiing (also snowboarding) is that helmets should be worn to prevent or lessen head injuries related to falls and collisions. While a helmet may not significantly lessen deceleration forces upon the brain incurred by a sudden stop at high speed, they almost certainly somewhat soften the blow and are useful to prevent skull fractures. As they become standard equipment for recreational skiing, we will learn more about the psychology associated with their use.

“Risk-taking Behavior in Skiing Among Helmet Wearers and Nonwearers” is an original research article by Lana Ruži?, MD, PhD and Anton Tudor, MD, PhD in a recent issue of Wilderness & Environmental Medicine (22, 291-296, 2011). The objective of the study was to examine differences in on-the-snow ski behavior between helmet wearers and non-wearers. Using a survey taken of 710 skiers, the predictive power for risk-taking behavior was tested for gender, age, educational level, level of skiing, years of skiing, and helmet usage. Independent predictors for overall risk could be correlated with younger age (less than 35 years of age), male gender, higher skiing level, and helmet usage. Significantly higher risk was assessed for male helmet wearers, while this was not seen to be significant for female helmet wearers. The group found to be most prone to risk-taking behavior was the male occasional helmet wearers 

It has been shown previously that male skiers generally take more risks than do female skiers. It is new information that wearing a helmet appears to increase risk-taking behavior, perhaps even further, in young males.  What should we make of this? Perhaps wearing a helmet contributes to a feeling of invincibility, or creates an impression in the user that regardless of behavior, a helmet will be protective. Skiers and snowboarders should be made to understand that the benefits of wearing a helmet might possibly be neutralized by risky behavior. Risk profiles for high-speed impacts decline with age, but that should not obviate the need for a helmet. The elder brain is less tolerant of injury, and there is a higher likelihood that a significant blow to the head will result in bleeding within the skull.

Perhaps the largest elephant in the room is the notion I have heard offered by some that if one is not wearing a helmet, he or she is more likely to ski with caution, in order to avoid a collision or fall. This sounds good, but has never been proven. Furthermore, despite all best intentions, collisions occur because skiers catch an edge, are impacted by a colliding skier, slip on ice, or due to a myriad other reasons to precipitously strike the ground or a foreign object with their heads. The takeaway here is that a helmet is not a license to throw away caution, but it appears that this may be the interpretation by young, male skiers. We need to inform them otherwise.

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Tags: Hot & Cold , Staying Safe

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

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