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Wednesday June 27, 2018 - Email this article to a friend

Wearing a helmet for snowsports has no significant effect on your risk of suffering a traumatic brain injury, according to the latest research.

The study, published in Wilderness and Environmental Medicine*, says helmets are generally good at protecting skiers and snowboarders from head injuries, but it questions their effect in reducing serious brain injury, including concussion.

Head injury is said to be the leading cause of death and catastrophic injury among skiers and snowboarders and accounts for between 3 and 15% of winter sports-related injuries.

Although helmet use is increasingly encouraged and has risen significantly in recent years, little data has been collected on the degree to which wearing one prevents traumatic brain and other head injuries.

Piste patrol injury recoveryInjury on the slopes

PlanetSKI has closely followed the debate about the value of helmets over the years:
In this latest study investigators assessed the effect of helmet use in 30 French ski resorts between 2012 and 2014.

They also carried out interviews on the slopes with people without injuries, using them as a control group.

The key findings:
  • Skiers and snowboarders not wearing helmets were more likely to sustain injuries. These include traumatic brain injuries, other head injuries and injuries to other parts of the body
  • When involved in a traumatic event, those not wearing a helmet had a greater risk of sustaining a head injury. However, the effect of helmet use on the risk of traumatic brain injury and concussion was not significant
  • Snowsports participants most risk of suffering a head injury were those with low skill levels, the under-16s, the over-50s and snowboarders.
  • Collisions and accidents in a snow park were more likely to cause head injury than any other traumatic incident.
Skiing in Val d'IsereHelmet or no helmet?

The study was led by Nicolas Bailly from the Montreal Sacred Heart Hospital Research Center in Quebec, Canada.

"The reduced risk of non-head injury in helmet wearers was surprising because the helmet does not protect other parts of the body," he said.

"This result suggests that helmet users take less risk than those who do not use helmets.

"This contradicts the 'risk compensation theory' which implies that the perception of being protected by the helmet might lead people to take more risks.

"This study also poses important questions to the scientific community and to helmet manufacturers about how helmets can be improved to better protect from concussion."

Skiing in FlaineCan helmets be made safer?

The researchers say there has been a significant increase in helmet use in France.

The number of adults wearing a helmet rose from 9 per cent in 2005 to 59 per cent in 2014, by which time 97 per cent of children were wearing helmets.

Esprit Ski classAlmost all children in France wear helmets - photo Esprit Ski

The study involved:
  • 1,425 participants with traumatic brain injury and 1,386 with other types of head injury
  • 2,145 participants without injury and 40,288 with an injury to another part of the body
There has been a lot of reaction to our article on social media. 

The comments below were posted in a closed Facebook group so we are giving only the initials of the contributors:

DO - Seems like a funny study with poor messaging to skiers. Helmets ARE effective and the article supports that. Do they prevent all injuries - NO !!! It's a silly message. I will continue wearing my helmet.

NK-  What the study found, was that all people with a traumatic brain injury had one whether they are wearing a helmet or not. What it does not say is what the cause and speed was of the accident. What they need to say is that wearing a helmet in certain accidents lessened the chances at lower speeds etc.

JH -  I know of far too many split helmets and close calls with friends within the industry to believe this, helmets save lives. End of. If you think otherwise then crack on!!!!

KS - nothing will protect you if you crash into a tree or pole. The idea of wearing a helmet is to protect your head in a fall or if crashing into another skier

RM- People tend to crash very seriously face first, which is why motorsports racers generally wear full-face helmets. Nevertheless, falling and banging your head hurts, and a helmet will alleviate most injuries that would otherwise be very painful, if not actually dangerous.

DO - Helmets prevent superficial and soft tissue injuries which is helpful. They don't reduce concussion to the brain which still gets flopped around in your skull. They might however dissipate a blunt impact enough to prevent a skull fracture while still allowing the concussive forces.

RM -  Partly correct. They DO reduce concussion to the brain. Amateur boxers wear head protectors for that precise reason. All helmets are designed to absorb concussive forces. As in most things, it's all about how much force is allowed through.

RW -  Same with cars/seatbelts/airbags. They all help reduce injury in low seriousness accidents, but when that 40T truck lands on top of you, whatever your protection you have no chance.

RS - The Headline should be Helmets Proven to Prevent Injury rather than mislead the public. Serious brain injury is going to happen even if you are wearing a metal box. Twice in 5 years I've been hit in the head by an upturned boarder, taking a junk out of my helmet. It doesn't matter how good you are, accidents happen and you don't have to be the cause to suffer the injury.

SB - I slammed into a lift tower in a Super G race. Dont remember it. But heres what I do know. My helmet saved my life. Sure - had a TBi and 18 months of painful rehab but hey. Im here. Alive. To even put out a message that perhaps helmets arent worth it is despicable. Wear a damn helmet.

*Wilderness and Environmental Medicine, the official journal of the Wilderness Medical Society, is a peer-reviewed international journal for physicians practising medicine in austere environments.

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