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Helmets in Skiing and Snowboarding

You might ask “do you really need to post something about using helmets when  skiing or snowboarding?” Doesn’t it seem like most skiers and snowboarders on the mountain have made the switch because of the knowledge that helmets do actually protect your brain from potential injury? Since the late 1990’s there’s been a dramatic shift in the numbers of resort skiers and snowboarders wearing helmets.

Helmets are an easy issue for us to pick up early in the life course of Sportgevity because the question about whether or not to wear one is simple. Intuitively it makes sense to most of us to put that extra little protective globe around our head. And there’s strong data to prove that it is worthwhile. Our job in this area of the Sportgevity website is two fold: to use existing research to help us select products that actually work to promote safety and longevity in our sports, and to help stimulate research on how human decision making is impacted by products, trends, groups, the list goes on.

Helmet use in skiing and snowboarding is well researched. One of the earliest studies by Oh and Schmid in 1983, was the first to suggest that kids less than 17 years old should wear helmets while skiing to reduce severe head injury. But there is a study that most of us have vaguely mentally bookmarked as “that study in that medical journal that showed they work” - you know the one we talk about during a chairlift conversation about helmets?  It is the 2006 seminal study released in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) called “Helmet Use and Risk of Head Injuries in Alpine Skiers and Snowboarders” by Steinar Sulheim, MD, Ingar Holme, PhD, Arne Ekeland, MD, PhD, and Roald Bahr, MD, PhD. The researchers definitively conclude: “helmet use is associated with reduced risk of head injury among snowboarders and alpine skiers”. This conclusion had been stated before by other researchers such as Hagel et al. in the 2005 BMJ article “Effectiveness of helmets in skiers and snowboarders: case-control and case crossover study”. But the 2006 JAMA article is what seemed to instill enough trust that helmets work to finally close the door on this debate.

The question of whether or not the psychological mechanism of “risk compensation” is in action when each of us puts on a helmet has been a debated issue.  Risk compensation is the shift in our behaviors relative to our perception of risk. For example, could wearing a helmet increase the likelihood we’ll take chances? Some researchers believed so, including Jasper Shealy, PhD, CPE who is an engineer at Rochester Institute of Technology and who has spent many years of his life researching and lecturing on skiing safety and injuries. However, two studies have suggested risk compensation is not in play when skiers or snowboarders wear helmets. Scott et al in the 2007 article “Testing the risk compensation hypothesis for safety helmets in alpine skiing and snowboarding” concludes: “No evidence of risk compensation among helmet wearers was found.” Hagel et al, in the 2004 article “The effect of helmet use on injury severity and crash circumstances in skiers and snowboarders” concludes: “There was no evidence that helmet use increased the risk of severe injury or high-energy crash circumstances. The results suggest that helmet use in skiing and snowboarding is not associated with riskier activities that lead to non-head-neck injuries.” Despite the evidence suggesting risk compensation does not negatively affect those who wear helmets in skiing and snowboarding, it should remain a hot topic when assessing other products in our sports.

In a nutshell, Sportgevity supports wearing helmets in skiing and snowboarding.


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