MADISON - A snowboarder spinning off a half-pipe can be a thing of airborne grace and beauty.
The coming back down part can be less graceful—and far more dangerous.
"There's concern that the number of head and spine injuries has been increasing in adolescents, especially among snowboarders," says Dr. Alison Brooks,
a sports medicine physician with University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics. "Some researchers believe it's directly related to the fact that terrain parks appeared on the scene in the mid-1990s."
Brooks was the lead investigator of a recent study that looked at skiing and snowboarding injuries sustained in terrain parks at two western U.S. ski areas. Among the studies' several findings: Male teenagers suffer injuries more than any other group, and head and back injuries are common.
"These injuries tend to be more severe, requiring treatment at a hospital, and they account for the majority of morbidity and mortality," says Brooks.
While the number of skiing- and snowboarding-related deaths is still relatively low - there are only 20-40 fatalities per year in the United States, and only nine related to snowboarding last year - the bigger concern for physicians like Brooks is head and spinal injuries, the type that can result in permanent disability.
According to the National Ski Area Association, there were nine catastrophic snowboarding injuries during the 2007-2008 ski season.
It's not necessarily surprising.
"Just look at the nature of terrain parks," says Brooks. "They consist of man-made features that are built to let you jump and do aerial maneuvers. You can do jumps off rails, boxes, or surf the half-pipe, and the majority of injuries from a terrain park are from jumping and landing in a way that causes injury. The design of the terrain park sets this up."
Interestingly, the Washington study found that the kids who were getting injured weren't necessarily the beginners, but those who self-reported as intermediate or advanced boarders.
"The question is, are these kids overestimating their skill level, or are they really good enough to be in the terrain park trying these tricks?" asks Brooks.
Some ski areas are trying to address this issue by developing different levels of terrain parks based on the difficulty of the features. Many have injury surveillance and safety programs, and work to identify problem spots where injuries occur, and alter the park design to decrease them.
How can parents and teens make a difference? Try these tips:
- Wear a helmet. Research shows that helmet use can significantly reduce—not prevent but reduce—the risk of severe head injuries while skiing and snowboarding. And the use of helmets by snowboarders has slowly been gaining acceptance: Nationally, between a third to a fourth of skiers and snowboarders at a given ski area will be wearing a helmet.
- Know your skill level. Instead of trying to make like Shaun White, Brooks says that snowboarding newbies should consider starting at the easier parts of the terrain park. Some ski areas offer specific lessons that focus on education and safe progression of skills in the terrain park.
"Parents might want to think about having their child enrolled in a lesson instead of turning them loose in an area where the potential for them to hurt themselves is pretty good," she notes.
- Use common sense. While it's true that adolescents who flip on ESPN2 to watch professionals like Shaun White and Seth Wescott pull off bonks, grabs and 180-degree turn air-to-fakies may be inspired to mimic their heroes, Brooks also notes that many teenagers approach their hobby with both eyes open.
"I've discussed this topic with teens that saw someone on TV doing what they described as crazy and dangerous tricks without wearing a helmet. They were able to identify that and say that was really stupid," she says. "They even cited specific examples from the Olympics."