Mountains

Skier helmet use takes sharp turn

JOSH STEPHENSON/Durango Herald

A recent survey showed 81 percent of youngsters 10 to 14 use helmets when skiing or snowboarding. During warm-up for the final event in the Chapman Hill Freeride Series, Hunter Rawles takes his turn in a seemingly never-ending line of helmet-clad youngsters Wednesday evening.

By Dale Rodebaugh
Durango Herald

The use of head protection by skiers and snowboarders has increased 10 percent from two years ago, pushing the rate of helmet use on U.S. slopes to 67 percent.

Since the 2002-03 season, the rate of helmet use has risen from 25 to 67 percent.

"Those are impressive numbers," Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, said in a phone interview last week. "Especially the 91 percent of youngsters 9 years old or younger who use helmets."

And those numbers apparently mean better head health. Helmets clearly reduce injuries, according to a Johns Hopkins School of Medicine report last year that looked at numerous studies of head injuries related to skiing and snowboarding.

Kirk Rawles, coach of the Purgatory Ski Team, said all the 135 youngsters ages 5 to 18 who participate in alpine racing, freestyle skiing and snowboarding must wear helmets.

Parents, coaches and the athletes themselves recognize the harm from concussions, Rawles said. They support the use of helmets because they want to protect heads, Rawles said.

"A helmet plays a part, a big part, in minimizing or preventing a concussion," Rawles said.

He said the recent coming to light of the head problems and other related issues that many National Football League players from the 1970s and 1980s now are experiencing from blows received decades ago.

Surgeons at St. Anthony Hospital in Lakewood have seen less serious head trauma from skiing and snowboarding as the use of helmets increased, according to a story by Colorado Public News.

The St. Anthony report said helmets cut the possibility of head injury by 75 to 80 percent, Colorado Public News said.

The most common cause of head injuries from snow sports are falling to the ground, crashes with trees and falls from 10 to 15 feet while doing jumps, the story said.

Mercy Regional Medical Center has a pair of programs to help combat head injuries in student athletes and others.

Since the beginning of the 2010-11 school year, certified athletic trainers - Mercy employees assigned to three area high schools - have tested athletes, including cheerleaders and dance squad members, to establish individual baseline cognitive levels.

If the athlete suffers what could be a concussion, he is retested for such functions as attention span, reaction time, word memory and color matching to compare with the baseline.

Before the computerized testing was introduced, trainers judged an athlete's concussion from symptoms - vomiting, nausea, confusion, ringing ear or blurry vision.

The other program is a seasonal distribution of helmets for snow sports, cycling and skate boarding, said Mercy spokesman David Bruzzese.

Helmet distribution is through Gray Matters, started in 2009 by a Mercy employee. The helmet program is funded by the Mercy Health Foundation.

Increased awareness of the head protection that helmets give brings a corresponding increase in the use of helmets, he said.

A National Ski Areas Association survey last year found that 81 percent of youngsters 10 to 14 years old use helmets when skiing or snowboarding. Helmets are used by 78 percent of people older than 65 and by 77 percent of youngsters 15 to 17.

The rate of helmet use by the group traditionally most resistant to it, ages 18 to 24, has risen to 53 percent. In 2002-03, the age group's helmet use was 18 percent.

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