December 18, 2019

Keeping heads safe during winter activities

Snowboarders with helmets on

Madison, Wis. — Everyone should wear a helmet when they go sledding, skiing, snowboard and even ice skating.

That's the simple advice of Ben Eithun, director of pediatric trauma, surgery, injury prevention and child protection, who has seen all kinds of injuries caused by winter sports.

”Wisconsin winter sports are a part of our culture, but participating in these time-honored traditions is much safer when proper precautions are taken.”

While many winter sports-related injuries are broken bones or bumps and bruises, many children have life-threatening injuries each year. “We have seen life-changing and tragically life-ending injuries from sledding crashes,” says Eithun. "The speeds at which you travel down the hill are often similar to speeds of bicycles or even slow-moving traffic. When you hit a fixed object at those speeds, the body takes a tremendous amount of force,” Eithun says. He adds that UW Health hospitals have seen children and adults who need emergent surgery to treat head injuries and patients with internal bleeding from organ damage due to winter sports injuries.

In 2018 nearly 200,000 people were treated for injuries related to winter sports according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

How to Keep Winter Activities Fun and Safe

So, what should be done to make a child's winter activity fun while reducing the possibility of an injury?

"Everyone should wear a helmet with the chin strap properly in place, so the helmet doesn't fly off," says Eithun.

Jim Savage manages the Safety Center at American Family Children’s Hospital, which offers helmets and other protective equipment for children and adults. He says the number of sledding injuries could be reduced by half if everyone wore a helmet.

"A combination ski/snowboard helmet would offer the best protection," he says. "It's designed to protect the entire skull, absorbing energy from an impact and keeping it from being transmitted to the brain. These helmets also protect the ears and provide warmth in the winter.

Savage adds the helmet should fit properly, making good contact around the entire head. 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 a 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, winter sports enthusiasts can take other steps to avoid a trip to the hospital. For example, children under 12 should have adult supervision. Also, adults and children should know the surroundings.

"Most winter sport injuries are preventable if you use common sense," says Eithun. "When skiing, snowboarding or sledding, 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."

"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."

Our Services

Winter helmets of all sizes are available for purchase at the Safety Center at American Family Children’s Hospital.