Vanderbilt doctors urge helmet use to curb serious injuries suffered during many sports

“We see hundreds of people at Vanderbilt each year with head injuries related to participation in athletics and leisure activities,” said Allen Sills, M.D., associate professor of Neurological Surgery.

“Helmets reduce the risk of brain injury from the falls and collisions that are so common in sports. We want helmet use to become second nature and are working to spread the message and change the culture.”

The brain injuries that can be sustained while participating in sports without a helmet can result in death or severe disability and often affect thinking, movement, sensation, language and emotions.

Helmets are especially important in collision sports, such as football and hockey, and high-speed sports, such a cycling and motocross.

“Today there are more people participating in sports and leisure activities, and people are starting at a younger age. Everyone is bigger, faster and stronger, and that makes the injuries more serious,” Sills said.

“Ten percent of all high school sports-related injuries are neurologic, and neurologic injuries are the leading cause of sports-related death. Wearing a helmet does not guarantee protection but it certainly helps.”

Sills and Craig Ferrell, M.D., professor of Clinical Orthopaedic Surgery and Rehabilitation, recently attended a Helmet Safety Symposium focusing on equestrian helmet use and sponsored by Riders4helmets.

As medical chairman for the Fédération Équestre Internationale (FEI), the international governing body of equestrian sports, and team physician for the U.S. Olympic equestrian and swimming teams, Ferrell has long been assuring the safety of athletes.

He says one of the major barriers to encouraging helmet use in equestrian sports is the culture.

“The cowboy hat for reining and top hat for dressage are the accustomed gear, and it is difficult to change those expectations. We need to make helmets more comfortable and stylish and make it a habit to put on a helmet,” he said.

Ferrell said the resistance in helmet use in all sports is a lot like the initial resistance to wearing seatbelts.

“When seatbelt laws were first made, there was a lot of push-back. But now kids who grew up wearing seatbelts are used to them, and wearing them is second nature,” he said. “My goal is to make a helmet something people want to use. If we can do that, we will have made a really big difference.”

Though Ferrell said he always wore a helmet when jumping on horseback or playing polo, he usually wore a ball cap to exercise his horses.

“But I started thinking why not? You can get hurt every single time you are on a horse. Now I absolutely wear a helmet whenever I am on a horse,” he said.

Sills recently took a family ski trip and every member was in a helmet on the slopes.

“I think it is up to parents and coaches to set a good example for the younger generation,” he said.

Ferrell and Sills advise athletes to choose helmets that have been tested and certified and are fitted properly.

“Turn to the resources that are available to get the right helmet,” Sills said. “Cyclists should ask at a bike shop and other athletes can rely on their coaches and trainers. There are many differences in helmets from sport to sport, and it is best to consult those who know the most about that particular one.”

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