Brain Health

Winter Sports Safety

The Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, start next month—good news for couch potatoes who can’t get enough curling. The Olympics raise awareness of and interest in all sorts of winter sports, including some pretty extreme ones.

So it’s  timely that January is National Winter Sports Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) Awareness Month. Each year, skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, ice skating, and other winter sports account for thousands of head and neck injuries—so it pays to be aware of the risks and know what to do in case of an accident.

Dr. Richard B. Rodgers is a Goodman Campbell neurosurgeon and Director of Neurotrauma and Neurocritical Care at the Indiana University School of Medicine. According to Dr. Rodgers, the best way to treat a TBI is to prevent it from happening.

“The first rule of winter sports is to get the right gear,” Dr. Rodgers said. “If you’re skiing,snowboarding or snowmobiling, you need to wear a helmet. You need to make sure all your gear fits well and is in good condition.”

The other big, important rule of winter sports is to not go it alone. “If you’re out skiing and no one knows where you are, there’s a chance that you can get hurt and no one will be able to find you. You really want to have other people with you, especially in the winter when conditions can deteriorate fast,” Dr. Rodgers said.

When in doubt, see the doctor.

If you or someone you’re with has been involved in a winter accident, how do you know when to go see a doctor? 

“Any time there’s a loss of consciousness, a declining level of consciousness, or any kind of numbness or tingling in the arms or legs, you should see a doctor,” said Dr. Rodgers. “Even a momentary loss of consciousness should be checked.”

Dr. Rodgers said that if the patient is experiencing these kinds of difficulties, it’s better to call 911 than to bring the patient to the hospital yourself. “A head injury could also mean a spine injury, and moving the patient could have unintended consequences. Be especially careful of patients who are unconscious and can’t tell you how they’re feeling. Call for help.”

Dr. Rodgers emphasized that most patients who experience a head injury will be just fine—but even people who report feeling fine may need attention. In 2009, for example, actress Natasha Richardson fell while skiing and hit her head. She was taken to an infirmary, but thought she was fine and didn’t stay. Later that day, she suffered an epidural hematoma—bleeding between the brain and the skull—and died. It’s a treatable TBI, and patients can make a good recovery if they have timely surgery.

“When you hit your head, it’s always safest to go to the doctor right away,” Dr. Rodgers said.

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