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Effectiveness of helmets in reducing head injuries among skiers and snowboarders

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Skiing (iStock)Skiing (iStock)Skiing (iStock)

For many residents in northern regions and high country, winter means more than suffering through tough weather conditions and hours spent shoveling snow — it means a chance to hit the slopes. Some 10 million Americans do so in an average year. However, according to a 2010 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, skiing and snowboarding result in an estimated 600,000 injuries a year; of these, between 15-20% are traumatic brain injuries.

Such injuries may account for 50% to 88% of total deaths among skiers and snowboarders, according to a study in the Journal of Trauma. Champion freeskier Sarah Burke suffered fatal injuries in January 2012 on the same Utah training run where snowboarder Kevin Pearce suffered a traumatic brain injury in December 2009. Those events shocked the winter and extreme sports communities and prompted criticisms that such sports had grown too dangerous. Professional athletes typically wear helmets on the slopes, but research suggests that they are worn by less than 37% of the recreational participants. To what extent does a helmet protect the wearer from serious head and neck trauma?

A 2012 metastudy published in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, “An Evidence-Based Review: Efficacy of Safety Helmets in the Reduction of Head Injuries in Recreational Skiers and Snowboarders,” investigated how well helmets protected these recreational winter sports enthusiasts from serious injury. The researchers, from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and other medical institutions, analyzed 16 studies on incidents of ski and snowboard trauma — including head, neck or spine injuries and fatalities — helmet use, and risk-taking behavior published between January 1980 and April 2011.

Key study findings include:

  • “The use of safety helmets clearly decreases the risk and severity of head injuries as compared with nonhelmeted participants in skiing and snowboarding….  Therefore, helmets are strongly recommended during recreational skiing and snowboarding.”
  • Earlier research on helmet safety proposed the “risk compensation theory,” which suggests that safety precautions are counterbalanced by riskier behaviors, but the overall evidence does not support the theory. Researchers found no evidence linking helmet use and nonhelmet equipment damage, faster self-reported speed on the slopes, participation on a more difficult run, and jumping maneuvers.
  • One study suggested that executing a jumping maneuver on the slopes was associated with a greater risk of serious head injuries than not wearing a helmet; another study suggested that riding on icy slopes and not wearing a helmet were the leading risk factors.
  • One study showed that a greater number of nonhelmeted children suffered from skull and craniofacial fractures.
  • In one study, more than two-thirds of participants classified themselves as “cautious” on the slopes, but they were no more likely to wear a helmet or ski/snowboard at lower speeds than their risk-taking peers.
  • Skiers and snowboarders who believed that helmet use would decrease their chances of a severe injury or that helmet use should be mandatory were more likely to wear one.

The authors conclude that the “beneficial effects of helmets are not negated by unintended risks because their use does not seem to increase the risk of neck or cervical spine injury as compared with nonhelmeted participants in skiing and snowboarding.”

Tags: metastudy, sports, youth

    Writer: | Last updated: November 28, 2012

    Citation: Haider, Adil H.; Saleem, Taimur; Bilaniuk, Jaroslaw; Barraco, Robert. "Efficacy of Safety Helmets in the Reduction of Head Injuries in Recreational Skiers and Snowboarders." Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, Vol. 73, No. 1, 1340-1347. doi: 10.1097/TA.0b013e318270bbca.

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    Media analysis

    Read the issue-related Cape Breton Post article titled "Legislation Requiring Helmet Use on Nova Scotia Ski Hills Now in Effect."

    1. What key insights from the news article and the study in this lesson should reporters be aware of as they cover these issues?

    Study analysis

    Read the full study titled "An Evidence-Based Review: Efficacy of Safety Helmets in the Reduction of Head Injuries in Recreational Skiers and Snowboarders.”

    1. What are the study's key technical term(s)? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
    2. Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
    3. What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
    4. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
    5. How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.

    Newswriting and digital reporting assignments

    1. Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
    4. Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
    5. Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
    6. Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.

    Class discussion questions

    1. What is the study’s most important finding?
    2. Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
    3. What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
    4. How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
    5. How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
    6. What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?