Safety on the Slopes

What you need to know about ski-related head injuries and how to prevent them

By Aitken * Aitken * Cohn

The holidays are almost upon us, and here in Southern California, an early December storm brought several inches of snow to the mountains. Ski season has arrived!

There’s nothing quite like the fun and freedom of hitting the slopes. But before you strap on your boots, be sure you know the basic facts about ski-related head injuries and your best bets for preventing severe trauma.

Here are some sobering statistics:

  • Each year in the U.S., there are about 600,000 injuries on the slopes
  • Head injuries account for approximately 20% of all ski- and snowboard-related injuries (22% among children)
  • Head injuries are the most frequent cause of death and severe disability among skiers and snowboarders, according to The American Association of Neurological Surgeons. Traumatic brain injury is the most common severe injury from skiing and plays a part in 88% of ski/snowboard fatalities.
  • Fortunately, 90% of ski/snowboard-related head injuries are minor, including cuts, scrapes, bumps, and bruises,
  • Most are caused by falls, such as losing balance and toppling over on snow or ice.
  • 22-42% of ski-related head injuries are serious enough to result in clinical signs of concussion and/or loss of consciousness
  • The incidence of concussion is highest among kids and young adults.
  • There’s also an increased risk of head injury among beginners and males.
  • Snowboarders are at 50% higher risk for head/neck injury compared to skiers
  • Terrain parks are more dangerous for head, neck, and back injuries than regular slopes.
  • Collisions often cause severe head wounds on the slopes with other skiers or static objects such as rocks, pylons, or trees. Crashes with static objects typically do the worst damage—most fatal ski-related head wounds are caused by colliding with trees.

But there’s good news:

According to Boston Children’s Hospital, “properly fitting helmets reduce the risk of ski and snowboard-related head injuries by 60 percent.”

Further, the vast majority of skiers and snowboarders are now wearing helmets. Ski California reports, “Helmet usage by skiers and snowboarders in the United States continues to increase yearly. According to the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), 87 percent of all skiers and snowboarders wore helmets during the 2020-2021 ski season, setting yet another record for helmet usage. Ski helmet usage has increased every season since 2002.”

Always wear a helmet while skiing or snowboarding, and make sure your kids understand its importance. Choose a helmet that meets certification guidelines—look for a label with the code ASTM F2040 or CE EN 1077. And get a proper fit—the helmet should be snug, with no space between padding and head, but not so tight that it causes a headache. It should cover the forehead and back of the head (leave about 1” above the eyebrows, and make sure it doesn’t rub the back of the neck when moving).

It’s important to realize, however, that wearing a helmet by no means eliminates concussions, which remain common—but helmets are very effective at reducing the seriousness of a head injury, helping prevent skull fractures and traumatic brain injury.

What’s the difference? A concussion is a mild form of brain injury resulting from an impact on the head, causing the brain to be jostled inside the skull. A forceful blow or jolt causes a moderate to severe traumatic brain injury (TBI) to the head or an injury that fractures or penetrates the skull. It can cause respiratory depression, seizures, spinal damage, coma, or even death, and may have long-term effects on survivors. TBI is a severe medical emergency requiring immediate attention and, often, surgical intervention. No surgical treatment and medication options are limited; the brain needs time to heal, but most people fully recover.

Accidents happen. Know the signs. If you or someone you’re skiing with takes a spill, has a collision, or displays these signs of head injury, don’t hesitate—call for medical help right away:

  • Unconsciousness (note that not all concussions result in loss of consciousness—many do not)
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Drowsiness/dizziness
  • Headache
  • Blood or fluid coming from the nose or ears
  • Blurred vision
  • Sensitivity to light/noise
  • Lethargy/low energy/lack of attention
  • Slurred speech

For more detailed information, please read our article on Concussion and TBI. Some accidents on the slopes are unavoidable. But if you or someone you love has suffered a ski- or snowboard-related head injury due to someone else’s negligence or recklessness, you may be entitled to compensation. The lawyers at Aitken * Aitken * Cohn have successfully represented numerous traumatic brain injury victims in Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, California, and Nationwide. Our law firm has the compassion, resources, and experience to consult brain injury victims.