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Extreme Winter Sports and Traumatic Brain Injury


In our continuing series on Winter Sports TBI Awareness Month, the world of Extreme Winter Sports is certainly an important topic. Extreme winter sports have gained in popularity, with some events making their way into the Winter Olympics. Some of the most popular extreme winter sports are: (1) ice cross downhill, in which ice skaters race each other down a bobsleigh track on sheet ice over jumps and obstacles; (2) heli-skiing, where skiers drop from a helicopter into remote, off-trail terrain to ski downhill; (3) snow kiting or kiteboarding, in which the snowboard is attached to a large kite and catches the wind to move the snowboarder across the snow; and (4) snow cross, where snowmobiles race over a motor cross-type track, and in which jumps are approximately 9 meters high, sending drivers nearly 40 meters into the air.

With boundaries being pushed more and more, it is not difficult to understand why participants in these sports suffer severe injuries. What is somewhat difficult to understand, however, is that despite an increased use of helmets by both skiers and snowboarders, the number of snow and sports-related head injuries has increased. In fact, a March 2013 study by the University of Washington concluded that while the use of helmets by skiers and snowboarders increased by nearly 70%, the number of head injuries increased 250% between 1996-2010. While the reasons for this are complicated and not entirely agreed upon, experts do agree on one thing: the increase is due in part to an increase in risk-taking behavior encouraged by the snow-sports industry.


Jumping from a helicopter to ski down a mountain and flying off a huge half pipe to nail a trick never before done means more than an adrenaline rush; it means the very real possibility of very severe head injuries. It also means that helmets will help but not prevent the head injuries; the velocity and impact of an accident in those circumstances are too great for a helmet to withstand. This leads some to conclude that the answer is better helmet technology--finding a way to make protective gear for the brain that can withstand such violent, high-impact hits to the head. Others disagree, noting that every time protective technology improves, the risk-taking behavior steps up a notch due to a false sense of security, setting the whole cycle in motion again. If we want to truly protect our brains, the argument goes, then the culture of risk must be addressed.


Whether a recreational participant or an elite athlete in training, people who engage in extreme winter sports very often sustain four or more concussions--six or seven is not unusual--during their time in the sport. Equally alarming is the attitude of participants toward their multiple traumatic brain injuries, or TBIs; an attitude of nonchalance and/or a sense of the TBIs being just part of the sport prevails. This attitude, combined with the fact that many who engage in extreme winter sports are from their late teens to their late twenties and therefore feel a youthful sense of immortality and invincibility, leads to many head injuries being left untreated.

A tragic example of what happens when a young athlete fails to take a head injury seriously is the story of snowboarder Kevin Pearce. Pearce suffered a career-ending TBI while trying to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team in 2009. He had sustained a concussion after a bad blow to his head three weeks earlier while practicing a new trick from a half pipe. Known as "second hit syndrome" in football, playing again before a concussion is fully healed is potentially lethal. In Pearce's case, a second trauma to his brain resulted in such severe brain damage that it not only ended his snowboarding career, but forced him to relearn motor skills, improve his vision and memory, and learn how to function again in everyday life. Pearce now realizes that he never should have been snowboarding with a concussion, and had he taken proper care of that TBI, he never would have suffered the brain damage that ended his career and changed his life. Pearce now supports the #loveyourbrain education campaign.

Although there is not enough research and data on the long-term effects of TBIs associated with skiing, snowboarding and extreme winter sports, experts are looking to football and ice hockey for indicators of the long-term impact of multiple head injuries. As the previous blog in this series discussed, repeated concussions and TBIs are now understood to cause chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. If that research is extrapolated to other sports, then those participating in extreme winter sports may be at risk of developing CTE. The best way to minimize that risk is for anyone involved in extreme winter sports who suffers a head injury to have a healthcare professional expert in TBIs evaluate the head injury, treat it, and then determine when it is safe for the person to participate in the sport again.


If you or someone you know has suffered a head injury while engaging in winter sports, contact Dave Thomas at The Thomas Law Firm for a free evaluation of your legal rights.

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Thomas Law Firm
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