Winter brings snow, and snow brings skiing and snow boarding. Several hundred million people worldwide participate in these winter sports. However, the risk of injury is high. In 1997, almost 90,000 skiers and 40,000 snowboarders in the U.S. were treated in emergency departments. Of these, roughly 17,500 had head injuries. Head injuries are not only the most common reason for hospital admission among snowboarders and skiers, but they are also the most common cause of death, with an 8% fatality rate.

Helmets have been suggested as a way to reduce the risk of head injury. Yet, ski resorts do not typically require helmet use and some people actually oppose the use of helmets. Arguments against helmet use include the possibility of impaired vision or hearing due to the helmet. Some suspect that wearing a helmet might lead to a false sense of security and encourage riskier behavior on the slopes. Others fear that the weight of the helmet might increase the risk of neck injury, especially in children.

Several studies have looked at the possible reduction of risk that comes with wearing a helmet, but have failed to control for other factors that could skew the results. A study published in the February 22, 2006 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association attempted to determine the effect of wearing a helmet on the risk of injury while controlling for other potential risk factors.

About the Study

The study was conducted at eight major Norwegian alpine resorts and included more than 3,000 injured skiers and snowboarders and almost 3,000 non-injured skiers and snowboarders for comparison. Researchers looked at helmet use, injury type, and other risk factors including age, sex, and skill level.

Of the skiers and snowboarders with injuries, 17.6% had head injuries. Using a helmet was associated with a 60% reduction in the risk for head injury. Beginners, men, youth, and snowboarders had an increased risk of head injuries, but the protective effect of a helmet was seen in these groups as well. The study also found a lower risk of neck injuries with helmet use.

This study does have limitations though. The authors state that obtaining a control group representative of all skiers and snowboarders at risk is difficult. Additionally, the injuries analyzed in this study were reported by ski patrol. Studies have found that self-reported injuries may be up to 10 times higher than those recorded by ski patrol.

How Does This Affect You?

If you ski or snowboard, wearing a helmet makes sense, especially if you are in one of the higher risk groups listed above. The data in this article may not absolutely prove that helmets protect against serious injury, but the high likelihood that helmets do confer a safety benefit should make them more common and more acceptable on the slopes. This acceptance will make it easier for all skiers and boarders to wear helmets without standing out as “weird”.

If you do wear a helmet (and you almost certainly should ), make sure that it is specially designed for skiing and snowboarding—do not substitute a helmet that is designed for another sport, such as bike riding. And even if you do wear a helmet, make sure that you ski or snowboard in control and observe all posted signs and warnings when on the slopes. A helmet can do little to protect you if you are being reckless and slam into a tree, person, or other object on the slope.