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Winter Sports and Concussion

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

It has finally decided to be winter in Upstate NY and folks are hitting the slopes.  Skiing and snowboarding are definitely great ways to stay healthy but they can put people at increased risk for a concussion.  According the CDC, a concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury (TBI) caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head or by a hit to the body that causes the head and brain to bounce around or twist in the skull, stretching and damaging brain cells and creating chemical changes in the brain.  The American Academy of Neurology (AAN) indicates that winter sports included, more than 1 million young and adult US athletes in all sports sustain a TBI each year.  

Most people with a concussion recover quickly and fully but others will have symptoms that last for days or even weeks. Serious concussions can last for months or years and potentially leave an individual with severe impairments for life.   The Injury Prevention Journal cites that wearing a helmet while snowboarding or skiing can reduce head injury by up to 60%; in addition, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that 44% of head injuries could be prevented by the use of helmets (53% for children 15 and younger.)   And while wearing a helmet is recommended, it is not a 100% guarantee against injury.  In fact, some studies suggest that despite more people wearing helmets, concussions are on the rise.  This may be due to an increase in risk-taking behaviors marketed by the industry, more extreme terrain at the slopes, or a false sense of security while wearing a helmet.  

Whatever the reasons, there are steps you can take to minimize your risk as you head to the slopes. The American Academy of Neurology and the National Ski Areas Association recommend the following:

  1. Wear a helmet – be sure that it fits properly and is in good working order.
  2. Be aware of your surroundings.  Stay on marked trails and never attempt a trail that is beyond your skill level.  Don’t try tricks you see on TV or online without proper instruction.
  3. Always stay in control and be able to stop or avoid people or objects.
  4. Focus on technique. Warm-up ahead of time, take lessons to learn good form, and cool-down afterwards.
  5. Know the signs of a concussion: Headache and sensitivity to light; nausea and vomiting; changes in reaction time, balance and coordination; changes in memory, judgment, speech, or sleep; loss of consciousness (which happens in less than 10% of cases.)

Coaches and parent should also know and understand the four-step action plan laid out by the CDC. If you think a person may have a concussion, follow these steps:

  1. Remove from play. – Have the person sit out the rest of the ski session or game.
  2. Seek Medical Attention – do not try to diagnose a concussion on your own. Always seek a medical professional for an accurate diagnosis.
  3. Inform and Educate Parents/Family/Friends – inform any significant other about the concussion, symptoms, and treatment.
  4. Get written concussion care instructions from your doctor. These instructions should include information about when it is OK to return to play or the slopes and what steps you should take to help the individual safely return to play.

To learn more about concussion, go to the CDC’s concussion page or the American Academy of Neurology’s sport concussion guideline. Enjoy the winter weather and be safe out there.

Lorraine Wichtowski is a community health educator at Noyes Health in Dansville. If you have questions or suggestions for future articles she can be reached at or 585-335-4327.

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