At this holiday time of the year, many of my patients can’t wait to head for the snow-covered mountain resorts for a winter vacation full of sports fun like snowboarding, skiing, snowmobiling and/or sledding.
Although I don’t like to put a damper on my patients enthusiasm for winter sports, I do like to caution them, as I would you, about the dangers of serious, sometimes fatal, head injuries that can occur while involved in these high-speed winter sports. Of course, head injuries, on any level of seriousness, can occur all yearlong from sports or even just from a fall off a ladder.
However, engaging in some winter sports sets the perfect stage for a life-threatening head injury with the combination of ice, snow and fast moving body mechanics. Winter holiday resort visitors are especially at high risk for these injuries as they may not be very skilled and frequently are taking lessons in the sport for the first time.
Actress Natasha Richardson brought the dangers of vacation winter sports home to all of us with her untimely, tragic death from a seemingly minor concussion she incurred while taking beginner skiing lessons at a Canadian ski resort with her family. Worse, when the injury occurred, she thought she was okay and didn’t seek medical help immediately which could have saved her life. A few hours later she developed fatal brain swelling/hemorrhage.
Surviving Head Injuries – What You Can Do
The most important thing you can do to survive a head injury is to AVOID getting a head injury! Here’s how:
➢ Wear a helmet: Whether you are snowboarding, sledding, skiing, or snowmobiling, it is absolutely crucial to protect your head with a good helmet. You wouldn’t go without a helmet on your bicycle and winter sports are even faster moving and potentially more dangerous than riding a bike.
➢ Know your sport, know your limitations: Some people, especially on vacation, take unnecessary risks that they wouldn’t normally do. They get on fast moving snowmobiles, or snowboards without much knowledge of the sport, and soon realize they don’t know how to maneuver when they hit a bump and go flying off. The key is to know what you’re doing, how to handle equipment and yourself before you attempt to participate in such high speed sports. Heed rules and regulations where you are participating in the sport – the terrain where you are may necessitate different procedures than you’re used to. Take lessons ahead of time and practice under supervision.
➢ Know The Symptoms: Headache, slurred speech, blurry vision, nausea, changes in speech, memory, pain, sleepiness, occurring after hitting your head, one or more of these, could indicate hidden trauma within the brain. If you start to feel sleepy, DO NOT go to sleep. Get to an urgent care or hospital emergency room immediately.
➢ Don’t Second Guess An Injury: If you fall and hit your head, you may, like Ms. Richardson, initially feel okay and be talking and acting normally. However, it would really be in your best interest to get checked by a doctor who may be able to see subtle warning signs of bleeding in your brain. Also, you should sit out of the action for 2 hours after the fall during which time you can be observed for any neurologic changes. The first 2 hours is critical in a head injury situation.
➢ Don’t Go Off On Your Own: Often times people want to explore trails or secluded areas by themselves on vacations, but this is really not a good idea, especially if you do not know the area very well. Stay in close proximity to other people who will know if you fall and can help you and call for help.
➢ Alcohol and Sports Don’t Mix: This should be a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many people wind up in hospital emergency rooms with traumatic brain injuries after drinking and trying to operate jet skis, snowmobiles, or get on water skis or kite skis pulled by a boat. If you’ve had some alcohol, your reflexes are slower than you realize. Wait until you’ve cleared the effects of alcohol from your system to participate in these kinds of sports.
Sports of all kinds, both winter and summer, can be a lot of fun and provide good, healthy exercise out in the fresh air with your friends or family. However, they can also be the source of serious head trauma that can leave you permanently disabled or worse. Take precautions listed here and seek medical help if you hit your head.
Photo Credit: Salvatore Vuono