Winter sports are great for fun and fitness, but they entail risks.
In another high-profile tragedy, British-born actress and wife of Liam Neeson, Natasha Richardson, died in 2008, after a seemingly minor fall on a Quebec ski slope apparently led to bleeding in her brain.
In a so-called talk-and-die case, Richardson did not show any signs of injury after a minor fall but continued talking, apparently unharmed.
Ski patrol transported her to the bottom of the hill in accordance with safety policies, but when an ambulance arrived, Richardson reportedly refused medical care and returned to her room.
An hour later, she began to experience a severe headache. She was rushed to the hospital, where her injuries were confirmed to be critical. Three days later, she died.
How dangerous are winter sports?
Statistics show that while skiing and snowboarding are less dangerous than many high-participation sports, the speed and thrill that provide their attraction carry inherent risks.
Fast facts about winter sports injuries in 2014
- 114,000 people were treated for snow-skiing injuries in US emergency rooms
- 79,000 were treated for snowboarding injuries
- 47,000 were treated for injuries from ice skating
- 52,000 were treated for injuries from sledding, tobogganing and snow tubing.
The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS) quote US Consumer Product Safety Commission figures stating that over 290,000 visits were made to emergency rooms for winter sports injuries in 2014.
The National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), which collect data from all the ski areas in the US, report that an average of 53.7 million ski visits were made in 2012-2013, and there were 25 fatalities.
Of these, 20 were male and five were aged under 10 years. When fatalities occur, it is usually due to severe head or neck injury, and/or major thoracoabdominal injury, often as a result of excessive speed and loss of control.
Annually, an average of 49 serious injuries have occurred over the last decade. They include paralysis, broken neck or spine and traumatic brain injuries.
For comparison, the NSAA highlight US National Safety Council statistics showing that in 2013, 34,600 Americans died in motor vehicle accidents and 31,758 died from unintentional public poisoning, while in 2012, 28 died due to lightning strikes.
As the winter sports season gets under way, how can participants ensure maximum safety while not missing out on the fun?
This article will look at some of the most common injuries and how to prevent or deal with them.
Head injuries are statistically not the most common problem, but they are potentially the most dangerous. Even a minor blow to the head can cause bleeding that can result in stroke, brain tissue damage and death. A person without symptoms may have potentially fatal internal bleeding, as in Richardson's case.
Falls and collisions increase the risk of serious head injury.
Neurosurgeon Keith Black, chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, CA, explains that bleeding can be fatal if it occurs between the skull and the brain stem.
This is the area at the top of the spinal cord where consciousness, breathing and heart function are regulated. It also connects the brain to many of the body's sensory and motor nerves.
An arterial dissection, or tear in the inner lining of the arteries of the neck, can lead to delayed symptoms such as blood clots. These can cause a stroke and possibly death, although symptoms of fatal bleeding may not be evident for 24 hours or more.
While an immediate CT scan can show up a bleed, Black points out that most patients are not normally scanned following a minor trauma, so that careful monitoring is needed.
Blurred vision, dizziness, confusion, swelling at the site of the injury and vomiting are some of the warning signs.
Commenting on Richardson's case, Black adds that patients with delayed bleeds do not normally deteriorate so quickly; there is usually time to stabilize the patient, control swelling and operate to relieve the blood clot if necessary.
Medical News Today previously reported on concussion in winter sports.
Wear a helmet
In all three cases mentioned above, the patients were wearing helmets. Helmets do not prevent every injury: 14 of the fatalities recorded in 2012-2013 were wearing helmets; 11 were not. But a helmet will decrease the seriousness of a blow to the head.
MNT reported at the time of Richardson's death on the debate about whether helmets should be mandatory for skiers and snowboarders. Until now, they are not compulsory in most of the US.
Helmets are a cheap and effective means of protection.
Dr. Jasper Sheely, of Rochester Institute of Technology in New York and lead author of the NSAA's injury report, estimates that helmet use reduces the rate of any head injury by 30-50%, noting that fatalities on the slopes have dropped as helmet use has risen.
The NSAA see this as evidence that wearing a helmet does not give a person the go-ahead to increase their level of risk-taking behavior. "We urge skiers and riders to wear a helmet, but to ski or ride as if they are not wearing a helmet," they say.
While 80% of those aged 17 years and under and 81% of those aged 65 and over wear a helmet, only 60% of 18-24-year-olds do so. This is up from only 18% in 2002-2003, but still low, especially in an age group that likes to take risks.
Helmets cannot prevent every serious injury, but they can save lives and should always be worn to reduce the incidence and severity of head injuries.
On the next page, we look at some more common injuries and ways to prevent them.