Helmets: A Gray Topic on Gray Matter

A week ago I was snowboarding down the lovely slopes of Okemo glad to have my snow legs back under me. And then I caught an edge, tried to correct, caught another edge, cartwheeled… and landed right on my helmeted head. It was one of those crashes where you stay still long enough to worry others, while hoping when you stand up all your limbs move with you, no sharp pains come screaming, and most of all – no concussion. This time, I got lucky (despite 4 days of intense neck pain). But I can’t say I always have been. By recent tally, I’m fairly sure I’m around 4-5 major concussions and at least 10 minor ones. (Of all of those, only 1 major concussion was from an extreme sport.)

For those who have never gotten a concussion before, it’s unlike any other injury. One moment you’re going about your business doing whatever it might be. The next, you feel your brain ricocheting from front to back as it sloshes around the inside of your skull. You instantly feel disoriented and strange. Your vision gets blurry and there’s a good chance you’re going to feel awfully dizzy even when on the ground. When you finally sit up, your brain just plain hurts and your neck isn’t terribly pleased either. Unlike a headache or hangover, you’re going to be feeling this way for a few days. Don’t be terribly surprised if you’re  unable to remember simple things like your phone number or address. Slurred speech, nausea, sensitivity to light and sound, and even blacking out can happen too.

Needless to say, concussions are terrifying. All head injuries are.

When it comes to extreme sports (among them my three favorites: snowboarding, rock climbing, and river kayaking), there’s a long standing argument on the effectiveness of helmets. Arguments ranging from “They make my hair look weird” all the way up to “It makes me take bigger risks” are heard and debated. Major media sources publish everything ranging from “It’s not just skiers who should wear helmets” to “Ski Helmet Use Isn’t Reducing Brain Injuries“. Clearly, this is not a black and white matter. It’s appropriately a gray topic on some very important gray matter.

So in all seriousness, how effective are helmets?

First, let’s start off with the types of head and brain injuries. Head injuries range from minor bumps, bruises, and lacerations all the way up to internal bleeding, blood clots, and skull fractures. Concussions fall somewhere in between with a wide range of severity, but dangerous nonetheless. Due to ongoing efforts from a range of organizations, companies, and media, concussions are the best known type of head injury. Injuries such as hematomas (blood clot on the brain) or contusions (actual bruising of the brain) don’t really make our everyday radar. But they should.

Unless you know specifically what type of head injury your going to sustain, a helmet will keep you safer (not to be confused with “keep you safe”). Whether you’re playing football or hurtling down a mountain side single track, it’s undoubtedly better to let your helmet take the initial impact than your skull and brain. No matter what argument you can think of, there is absolutely no proof going sans helmet will keep you any safer.

It’s absolutely true helmets don’t make us invincible, so there’s no way to justify being riskier just because you have a helmet on. All helmets including the most advanced are designed for a specific range of blunt force as they are restricted by volume, weight, and materials. Seeing as nothing at all (but staying completely still) can keep our brain from sloshing around our skull, helmets focus their efforts on reducing outside forces on our heads. This is achieved through insulation (padding, air space) and distributing force across a greater surface area.

Think back to high school physics and the infamous egg drop experiment. If you dropped an egg from 10 feet up on to a hard surface, it was guaranteed to crack, splatter, and be instantly unsalvageable. If you protected the egg carefully with insulation and something to absorb and spread out the force upon impact, your egg stood a fighting chance. If your brain is that egg, are you going to drop it without giving it a fighting chance?

At the very least, a helmet will ensure a reduction in lacerations and bruises from ice, rocks, branches, pavement or whatever blunt object you come in contact with. In the recent high profile accident of Michael Schumacher, doctors have agreed he wouldn’t have even survived his fall had he not been wearing a helmet. Had his head directly hit the rocks he encountered, he wouldn’t have made it to the hospital alive.

I shudder to think of all the times I would have certainly required stitches, ski patrol stretcher rides, rushed ER visits, or serious medical attention thanks to the various scenarios I’ve found myself in. Instead, I’m alive, healthy, and relatively intact. My helmets have undoubtedly saved me over and over – and there’s no argument there. I wear a helmet, and you should too.

Tahoe 2011

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About Jillian Bejtlich

Hey! I'm Jillian Bejtlich. I’m a lifelong New Englander with a serious love of the outdoors, adventure, and a pretty serious inability to sit still. I’m plagued by the travel bug, and it seems I’ll try any relatively sane and safe thing once. My big goal in life: Get people outside!