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Hard Heads

Helmets are becoming commonplace in many sports; bikers, skateboarders and even soccer goalies now wear them far more often than just a generation ago. Winter sports have their own dangers, and wearing a properly fitted helmet can reduce the risk of catastrophic brain injury.

According to a February 2010 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, alpine skiing and snowboarding account for about 20 percent of all traumatic brain injuries. Brian Rieger, Ph.D., director of the concussion management program at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, says parents need to take the risks seriously.

“We definitely see concussions with snow sports,” he says. “There’s been an increased risk in winter sports over the last few years, particularly with snowboarding.”

As a result, Rieger advocates that people of all ages wear helmets for winter sports. He has reviewed numerous studies on the effects of helmets in helping to prevent head and neck injuries. A systemic review of those studies, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 2010, showed that helmets reduced the risk of head injuries to snowboarders and alpine skiers by 35 percent.

Helmets will not prevent concussions, but they are designed to prevent life-threatening head injuries, Rieger says. The research he has reviewed indicates that skull fractures are reduced: “Wearing a helmet is probably the most cost-effective way to prevent serious brain injury.”

Local ski centers have taken steps to discourage these injuries. Four Seasons Golf and Ski Center in Fayetteville now includes helmets with all ski and snowboard rental packages, as does Toggenburg Ski Center in Fabius. But there are no state laws mandating that people wear them.

“The helmets have been included for the past two seasons,” says Bill Hane, Four Seasons’ director of operations. “But if the customer doesn’t want to wear them, that’s their prerogative.”

Hane, who has worked the slopes at Four Seasons for 25 years, says head injuries have always been a rare occurrence there. But he believes wearing a helmet on the slopes is a good idea. They have gradually become more accepted by the center’s younger renters.

“Since we offer the helmet, it becomes just part of what they wear,” Hane says.

That’s just the kind of peer behavioral modeling that Rieger hopes will become more widespread in winter sports—particularly for young male skateboarders. This demographic, Rieger says, is most at risk for serious head injury. Helmets can reduce this risk by 20 percent to 60 percent.

Hane suspects that some teenage snowboarders and skiers do take more risks on the slopes because of the perceived safety of their helmet. Yet Rieger says he has seen little evidence that it translates to an increase in injuries.

So why wouldn’t young people wear helmets on the slopes? Un-cool factors aside, Rieger says that hearing impairment is a common complaint. And it doesn’t hold up with him: “As a person who skis and wears a helmet, I have a problem believing that.”

Rieger adds that although he does notice more adult skiers wearing helmets these days, he’d like to see even more—especially if they are parents. “Parents need to model the kind of behavior they expect from their children,” he says. “People don’t understand how serious a head injury can be.”

While tubing and ice skating are responsible for statistically fewer head injuries, Rieger says they are not without their own risks. “We have seen a number of concussions from youngsters who have fallen on the ice and hit their heads,” he says.

John Walsh, deputy parks and recreation commissioner for the city of Syracuse, says while helmets are not offered for rental at the city’s three public rinks—Clinton Square, Meacham and Sunnycrest—there is nothing to discourage kids from wearing their own. Walsh says supervision is the best way to prevent injury with little ones.

“The reason why we didn’t get into the helmet rentals is because the helmets would have to be certified for safety,” Walsh says. “Parents can bring the child’s own helmet, and we encourage them to make sure they have the proper fit.”

Walsh, who has also coached youth hockey for the past 30 years, says he has definitely noticed more younger children wearing helmets on the city’s ice rinks. “People are thinking a little bit more about the risk of head injuries,” he says. “I think that’s a good thing.”

Pickup hockey is permitted at Meachem and Sunnycrest rinks during select hours and all players are required to wear helmets.

Rieger says while he sees relatively few head injuries caused by sledding, it’s the same high-risk demographic that is likely to get injured. These kids are more likely to stand up on a sled or devise jumps that cause the sleds to become airborne—and that’s what causes head injuries. Rieger adds that these kinds of injuries occur more often when kids are sledding without adult supervision.

And while most young people recover from a mild concussion over the course of several weeks, some cases require up to a year of recovery, he says.

No matter how many of their friends or family members wear their helmets on the slopes, some defiant young people will continue to resist, Rieger believes. “Until it’s mandatory, there’s still going to be a bunch of kids out there who aren’t going to wear the helmets,” he says.

Hane, at Four Seasons, doesn’t believe a law is the answer. “We prefer for our customers to decide for themselves,” he says. “We can provide the helmets, but we don’t feel we should have to make people wear them.”

“Kids are getting used to helmets for all sorts of activities,” Hane says, adding that many young people are already open to the idea of wearing helmets. “The culture has changed in the last 10 years. It’s pretty routine now.”p

Award-winning writer Tammy DiDomenico lives in DeWitt with her husband and two sons.

Pictures Above: Michael Davis Photos

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