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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The Wind in Your Hair: Importance of Protective Helmets

My kayaker buddies just told me the tale of a fellow who smacked his head on a big river rock when trying to execute an Eskimo roll on a gnarly rapid in North Carolina. He wound up with about a hundred stitches, and was lucky that he didn't bleed to death.

When I recently watched a professional mountain bike race in Colorado, I noted that all riders were required to wear a helmet. There was no option for the competitors to ride without a helmet. To my knowledge, none of them complained. Even though the race was on a very stable course, there was little chance for collision, and the speeds were relatively low by racing standards, all of the riders understood that accidents happen, and so they dutifully wore their head protection.

I asked a few of them whether they found the helmets cumbersome or an imposition. “Are you nuts, man?” one rider responded. He unstrapped his helmet and showed me a scar that wound around from the middle of his hairline in the front behind his left ear and back into the hair on his neck. “Check this out. I got this zipper when I patched out on some mud and skidded off the pavement and into a big hunk of granite. Popped my head like a big ripe peach. Got over a hundred stitches. The doc told me that if I was wearing a helmet, I’d have gone home with just a Band-Aid.” He replaced his helmet. “I’d wear this thing to bed if it fit on the pillow.”

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is the luckiest man on Earth. By all accounts, he recognizes that luck saved his life. He should spend the rest of his career as a poster person for wearing a motorcycle helmet.

I can’t imagine how anyone can consider it a personal freedom to sustain a severe injury because they choose to ride a bicycle, motorcycle, all terrain vehicle, horse, or any other conveyance capable of throwing a person to the ground without a helmet.

Rock climbers and snowboarders should wear them as well. I've participated in the rescue of an unhelmeted climber who lost the top part of his head from rockfall, who would have suffered only a glancing blow to plastic if he had been wearing a helmet. All wilderness medicine doctors can tell you stories about whitewater fatalities that occurred when unfortunate people flipped out of rafts or rolled their kayaks in rock-laden swiftwater, to meet their demise from cracked skulls and unconsciousness that led to drowning. Ski patrollers around the world have pulled too many victims from tree wells, who knocked themselves unconscious by colliding with these immoveable obstructions.

Who suffers because of unnecessary medical catastrophes? The victim, the families, taxpayers – everyone bears part of the burden. It is not an act of freedom or bravery to challenge a boulder or the pavement with your head. It is an act of foolishness.

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About the Author

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