Protect Your Head When Sledding
Children under 12 should wear a helmet when they go sledding.
That's the simple advice of Lynne Sears, a pediatric-trauma coordinator, who has seen all kinds of injuries caused by sledding.
"If we have nice weather and a lot of snow, more people will get hurt," says Sears, who works at American Family Children's Hospital in Madison.
Most sledding injuries are broken arms, legs and collarbones. What Sears worries about the most are what she calls "the worst of the worst."
"I'm talking about head injuries such as concussions, subdural bleeding caused by collisions, internal injuries to the liver and spleen after a child is hit in the stomach, and spinal cord injuries," she said. "Those never heal as well as broken bones."
In 2005, 20,000 children ages 5 to 14 needed medical attention because of mishaps on sleds, according to the Safe Kids Coalition, an organization dedicated to preventing accidental injuries.
Sears says sledding is fun, and she doesn't discourage participation. But riders often wind up in the emergency room with injuries caused by excessive speed as well as accidents with other sleds and immovable objects.
"If you have a little hill or slope in the neighborhood, and a couple of kids using it, that's probably fine," she says. "If you have a steep hill where everyone is going very fast, kids may collide with other kids, a rock or a tree. Then, there could be significant injuries because of the impact of the speed."
"You could also be ejected from the sled if you collide with another sled or hit a bump, go flying and land on snow-covered rocks," she adds. "You may think you are going to land in a bank of snow when you are actually hitting a boulder. You don't know what's underneath that snow."
How to Keep Sledding Fun and Safe
So, what should be done to make a child's sledding experience fun while reducing the possibility of an accident?
"Everyone should be helmeted, with chin strap in place, if one is going down a steep slope, so the helmet doesn't fly off," says Sears.
Jim Savage manages the hospital's Kohl's Safety Center, which offers helmets and other protective equipment for children and adults. He says the number of sledding injuries is reduced by half if a helmet is worn.
"A combination ski/snowboard helmet would offer the best protection," he says. "It's designed to protect the ears and lower part of the neck along the spine, and provides warmth in the winter. In a crash, there's energy being transmitted to the brain. The liner in the helmet lessens that energy and reduces the impact of the injury."
Savage adds the helmet should fit properly and make good contact with both sides of the head as well as the front and back. He says protective headgear was very popular at the safety center last winter when some parts of the Midwest had snowfall exceeding 100 inches.
"We had one child who was an inpatient from a sledding injury," says Savage. "The mother came down and purchased a helmet for him while he was still in the hospital, and said from now on, she was going to make sure he wore it for sledding, skiing or snowboarding."
Aside from using helmets, sledding enthusiasts can take other steps to avoid a trip to the hospital. For example, riders should sit on the sled feet first, not head first, and children under 12 should have adult supervision. Also, adults and children should know the surroundings.
"Most sled injuries are preventable if you use common sense," says Sears. "Always look out for rocks, trees and people. Depending on the slope, you could reach speeds up to 35 to 40 miles per hour when you get to the bottom. You are virtually unprotected with no bumper or dashboard in front of you. You are just out there with the elements."
While adults need to look out for kids, adults also need to protect themselves if they participate in winter sports such as skiing and snowmobiling. In the late 1990s, entertainer Sonny Bono and Michael Kennedy, the son of the late Robert Kennedy, died from head trauma in skiing accidents. Neither man wore a helmet.
"You probably see more risk-taking by adults than you would in young kids," says Savage. "So, you tend to see just as many, if not more, injuries involving adults."
Date Published: 04/30/2009