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A Culture of Risk-Taking Can Lead to Brain and Spinal Cord Injuries in Winter Sports

Follow a few safety precautions before hitting the slopes.

By Emma Harrington
Director of Injury Prevention and Education, Shepherd Center

During my childhood, wearing a helmet to ski was decidedly uncool. Perhaps more telling of that era was the idea that skiing in jeans was very cool.

Out of the 10 million or so people who ski and snowboard in the United States, 600,000 injuries occur annually. Of those, head trauma accounts for 20 percent and is the most common cause of morbidity and mortality in these winter sports. (Haider 2012)

Thankfully, in the past few years, helmet use in winter sports has become the norm with an almost 70 percent compliance rate – almost triple the number in 2003. (McMillan 2013) The rate of helmet compliance is encouraging, but it has brought to light some troubling statistics. Despite the number of people wearing helmets, the number of skiers and snowboarders sustaining brain injuries or fatalities has seen no reduction. Worse, studies have claimed that head injuries have actually increased.

According to a Western Michigan University School of Medicine’s 2012 study, head injuries have increased by 60 percent in seven years. The University of Washington furthered those results in its 2013 study, showing a 250 percent increase in snow-sports-related head injuries among youths and adolescents.

Experts have debated several theories that may explain the simultaneous rise in helmet use and head injuries. Perhaps the most convincing argument relates to risk-taking behavior. It is telling to examine who is getting hurt: 70 percent of snow-sport fatalities involve males in their late teens to early 30s. (McMillan 2013) As snow sport technology has yielded better, faster skis and snowboards, a push for more extreme sporting has followed. Resorts have opened more dangerous trails and are accused of propagating the risk-taking skier/boarder mentality with sponsorships and promotions of ever-more dangerous flips and tricks.

Often, people are surprised to learn that brain injuries can occur even when wearing a helmet. That leads researchers to believe there is a false sense of security that is leading to an increase in risk-taking behaviors.

Snow sports are a fun and great way to spend a winter afternoon, but like any sport, these activities come with some risk involved. Arm yourself with these tips (and helmets) to prevent a brain or spinal cord injury. Knowledge that leads to better decision-making is the key to prevention.

There are several, other smaller safety precautions that everyone should consider before hitting the slopes.

  1. Stay at your level. Trails are always marked with a green circle, blue square, or black diamond. Staying in control of your skis or snowboard is key to preventing injury.
  2. Constantly scan. Watch out for those who are going too fast, and/or have lost control and get out of their way fast.
  3. When going down a mountain, if you have to stop for any reason, move to the side of the trail. This prevents collisions with other skiers or boarders.
  4. Take a break when tired, and skip the last run of the day. Injuries happen when you are tired and not paying full attention to your surroundings.
  5. Skiing off-piste exposes you to hidden rocks, ledges, and avalanches, and is not worth the risk. Trees are not your friend when skiing, sledding, or boarding.
  6. When sledding or tubing, always go down feet first. Breaking a leg is far better than hitting your head.
  7. Wear your helmet. Even when sledding. Keep your head warm and avoid concussions and more serious brain injuries.

For more information on Shepherd Center's Injury Prevention Program, click here.

Haider, Adil H. "Helmets Save Lives of Skiiers and Snowboarders." Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, 2012.
Mayo Clinic. 2015.
McMillan, Kelley. "Ski Helmet Use Isn't Reducing Brain Injuries." The New York Times, Dec. 31, 2013.


EMMA HARRINGTON is the director of injury prevention and education services at Shepherd Center. Previously, Emma started the injury prevention program at Grady Memorial Hospital in the Trauma Department. She holds a master of education degree in international education policy from Harvard University. Originally from Boston, Emma is a licensed social studies teacher.

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.