Hel­mets pro­tect youths – but may in­vite risky runs

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By John In­gold

To look at hel­meted chil­dren glid­ing down Colorado’s ski slopes like bun­dled-up lol­lipops is to see an im­age of care­ful safety. But, for years, re­searchers have de­bated about how ef­fec­tive hel­mets are at pre­vent­ing head in­juries — es­pe­cially con­cus­sions and other closed-head trau­mas.

Do hel­mets ac­tu­ally keep kids safe on the slopes?

Now, a new study by doc­tors at Chil­dren’s Hospi­tal Colorado and the Univer­sity of Colorado School of Medicine is ad­ding to a grow­ing body of re­search that shows hel­mets are im­por­tant in less­en­ing the sever­ity of head in­juries that kids may suf­fer while ski­ing or snow­board­ing — but only up to a point. The study is sched­uled to be pub­lished in Fe­bru­ary in the Jour­nal of Pe­di­atric Surgery.

“Wear­ing a hel­met is not go­ing to pre­vent fa­tal in­jury,” said Dr. Steven Moul­ton, a sur­geon at Chil­dren’s who is one of the study’s au­thors. “But what it is go­ing to do is lower the risk of sus­tain­ing a se­ri­ous in­jury.”

Moul­ton and the pa­per’s other au­thors looked through 16 years of data in a trauma reg­istry kept by Chil­dren’s. Nearly 550 kids had come into Chil­dren’s dur­ing that time af­ter suf­fer­ing a head in­jury while ski­ing or snow­board­ing. Just over half of them were wear­ing a hel­met at the time of in­jury. But those kids who were hel­meted suf­fered less-se­ri­ous head in­juries than those who didn’t.

“Those who do not wear a hel­met while ski­ing or snow­board­ing sus­tain a sig­nif­i­cantly greater bur­den or in­jury and more se­vere head in­juries,” the study’s au­thors write.

That may seem like an ob­vi­ous con­clu­sion, but, for years, it has not been.

A few pre­vi­ous stud­ies showed an in­crease in head in­juries as hel­met use rose on the slopes. Some

ex­perts sug­gested that hel­mets per­haps en­cour­aged risky be­hav­ior, cre­at­ing more prob­lems than they solved.

But Jasper Shealy, a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at the Rochester In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy who has for years stud­ied in­juries at Ver­mont’s Su­gar­bush Re­sort, said the new study fits with a string of re­search at­test­ing to the ben­e­fits of hel­mets. Ex­ter­nal head in­juries — such as cuts to the scalp or even skull frac­tures — are greatly re­duced by wear­ing a hel­met, he said. And, even though hel­mets don’t pre- vent con­cus­sions, they may be able to lessen their sever­ity.

“In other words, yeah, wear a hel­met,” Shealy said.

But hel­mets aren’t li­censes to ski reck­lessly, he said. At higher speeds, they are help­less to pre­vent se­ri­ous head trauma or death.

No ski areas in Colorado cur­rently re­quire skiers or snow­board­ers to wear hel­mets, but some re­sorts, such as Vail, make kids tak­ing part in lessons or other pro­grams wear them. Most ski areas, though, strongly en­cour­age hel­met use, and nearly 90 per­cent of kids used one in the 2015-16 ski sea­son na­tion­wide, ac­cord­ing to a study by the Na­tional Ski Areas As­so­ci­a­tion.

Dave Byrd, that group’s di­rec­tor of risk and reg­u­la­tory af­fairs, said the as­so­ci­a­tion still urges hel­metwear­ers to ski as if they are bare-headed, to limit risk­tak­ing that could over­whelm the pro­tec­tion that hel­mets of­fer.

Moul­ton, the Chil­dren’s doc­tor, said the new study may also spur ad­di­tional ed­u­ca­tion ef­forts. His study found that kids from Colorado were much more likely to be wear­ing a hel­met when they were in­jured than kids from out-of-state.

“I think it has to do with the fact that ski­ing is more com­monly pur­sued among Colorado res­i­dents,” he said, “and per­haps the par­ents and chil­dren have a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the risk in­volved.”

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