Winter is a time of extremes—extreme cold, extreme wind, and extreme sports. As the days shorten, skiers and snowboarders head to the mountains, seeking thrills and fresh powder. But these alpine valleys harbor dangers to the body and brain.
Each winter, about 10 million Americans hit the slopes, with 600,000 injuries recorded annually. Of those injuries, up to 20% are head or neck injuries. Of the head or neck injuries, 22% cause loss of consciousness. Put another way, this means that each year, up to 2% of skiers and snowboarders suffer injuries intense enough to make them lose consciousness.
Because of this, January has been declared National Winter Sports Traumatic Brain Injury Awareness month—so pour yourself some hot cocoa, settle in by the fireplace, and read more about staying safe in the snow.
What is a traumatic brain injury?
A traumatic brain injury (TBI) is when a blow or injury damages the brain. Even a mild TBI can cause loss of consciousness for up to a few minutes, headache, confusion, dizziness, fatigue, and changes in behavior, mood, memory, thought, and cognition. A severe TBI can mean loss of consciousness for up to several hours, vomiting, slurred speech, seizures, and an inability to wake up from sleep.
TBIs, and the injury cascades that accompany them, can have lifelong repercussions. Moderate to severe TBIs can cause epilepsy, sleep disorders, neurodegenerative disease, neuroendocrine dysregulation, and psychiatric issues, especially major depression.
Concussion: a brain injury to take seriously
Concussion is a mild TBI caused by a blow to the head, or from being shaken so violently the brain slams against the inside of the skull. Concussion is extremely common in sports. Symptoms can be very mild, and may not appear until days after the injury. Because of this, many people continue exercising after a hard blow to the head, dismissing the injury as insignificant.
But there is no such thing as a minor brain injury. Although many concussions heal quickly, about 20% of patients suffer side effects for over six weeks after their concussion. A Canadian study found even decades later, concussion can triple a person’s risk of suicide.
What does this mean for winter sports?
Winter sports are fantastic exercise, but your patients should understand the risks. Here are some tips for staying safe in the snow.
● Always wear a helmet. There is debate within the scientific community about how effective helmets truly are, but many studies have found that helmets reduce a person’s risk of TBI. If a patient questions the effectiveness of helmets, inform them that at minimum, helmets do not increase TBI risk, and suggest that they err on the side of safety.
● Stay sober. Do not, by any means, ski or snowboard under the influence of alcohol or other drugs.
● Know your limits. Even if friends encourage you to try something daring, know when to say no.
● If you hit your head, don’t keep going! After a brain injury, the body needs rest. Find a medic or doctor, if possible, and follow their instructions.
Are skiing and snowboarding the only sports to worry about?
Other winter sports can be dangerous too. Another chilling fact: In 2017, 220,000 people were treated at hospitals, doctors' offices, and emergency rooms for injuries related to winter sports including skiing, snowboarding, ice skating, and sledding. Take note that ice skating and sledding are included—both sports can involve breathtaking speed, slick ice, and collisions aplenty. Parents should supervise these activities closely, and all participants should wear helmets.
With this information in mind, help your patients have fun and stay safe this winter!