Dr. Stewart Levy says a properly constructed and fitted helmet can significantly reduce the probability of brain injury. Dr. Levy says helmets can reduce the risk of brain injury by 75%.
Dr. Stewart Levy, a Denver-based neurosurgeon and father of two, helped launch a successful helmet-loaner program in Colorado called "It Ain't Brain Surgery." His studies have found that helmets can reduce the risk of brain injury by 75%.
"It's important for anyone to use a helmet when they ski or snowboard -- not just kids," he says. "It's more devastating to a family when a parent gets a brain injury, because the parent is the breadwinner or caretaker or both, it's very disturbing to see families on the slopes with their kids in helmets but Mom and Dad aren't wearing them. It's upsetting, disturbing and hypocritical as well."
Why should people wear helmets while engaged in activities? "There is always the risk of a brain injury when you are in any high speed sport, no matter how good of an athlete you are," he says. "There's always a chance you could fall or hit your head. At the same time, I'm an avid skier, so I'm not telling people to stop skiing. Just take a reasonable precaution and wear a helmet."
He says a helmet is not going to decrease the chance you're in an accident, but it will significantly reduce your odds of a brain injury. "Even if you do get a brain injury, it will reduce the severity of the injury," he says. "We've seen a lot of examples of that. We don't see the people whose injuries are completely prevented, obviously, because they don't make it to the hospital. But every season, we continue to see serious brain injuries that could have been prevented or reduced by simply wearing a helmet."
He says just like you strap your kid into a car seat or buckle your seatbelt every time you get into a car, wearing a helmet when you bike ride, ski, snowboard, roller blade, or skateboard should be automatic. "It's a no brainer," Dr. Levy says.
When an unhelmeted child or adult falls and hits their head, Dr. Levy says they can sustain injuries ranging from a mild concussion, hemorrhage, epidural or subdural hematoma, to a massive brain injury that results in coma or death.
How is the damage different if one is wearing a helmet? "Even if you do get an injury, the severity is likely to be reduced," Dr. Levy explains. "We see very few injuries that cause bleeding in the brain if the patient was wearing a helmet. And I have never personally treated a patient who died if they were wearing a helmet at the time of their injury."
What happened in Natasha Richardson's case? "It's possible she sustained a skull fracture," he says. "If the fracture tore an artery, then the artery would bleed, and over time, an epidural hematoma would develop and press on the brain, causing more and more pressure. Helmets are best for preventing skull fractures in a fall and preventing epidural hematomas. A helmet would have had a high probability of preventing an injury like this."
Why aren't helmets mandatory? "The ski industry is complex -- and helmet laws have been losing traction over time," Dr. Levy says. "Motorcycle helmets laws have been repealed in state after state. The ski industry is worried that if they pass a helmet law in their state, college students will just go to other states where they don't have to wear a helmet, and the resorts will lose money."
On the bright side, however, he says there is no doubt that helmet use on the slopes has increased. "It's gone from essentially zero percent when we launched our program in 1997 to about 50 percent now," he says. "Of course, we'd like it to be higher. We still unfortunately see injuries every year of people who are not wearing helmets. High-profile cases like this one and Sonny Bono are tragic, but they do help to get the word out about the importance of wearing helmets."
So, the next time you head out the door to ride, ski, or rollerblade, check your ego at the door and wear a helmet -- it could save your life.