Although it may feel like concussion prevention is an unreasonable expectation, there’s no shortage of information out there on how to manage our risks. Even better, there’s growing research on diagnosis, treatment, and recovery and new discoveries are being made.
While you can take appropriate measures to reduce your risk of concussion or traumatic brain injury, ultimately the simple act of being alive means you cannot eliminate the possibility entirely. Concussions are not reserved solely for NFL linebackers or professional skiers. In fact, people have suffered a concussion while walking on the beach and being hit by a falling coconut! While not exactly common, the reality is that concussions are not totally preventable, but you can lower your risk with the right protection. Namely, a helmet.
Think of it as you might a car wreck. You can take all the appropriate measures to prevent an accident — drive slowly, use your turn signals, be alert, and wear your seatbelt — but there’s no way to prevent another driver from running a red light and crashing into you. To extend this analogy, your seatbelt is likely to help minimize the damage and protect you, but it’s still very possible to suffer broken bones or other injuries from the impact.
It’s a widely accepted belief that wearing a helmet is a good idea when skiing, cycling, or participating in other sports with a potential for head injury. But less widely recognized is the need for helmet maintenance and replacement. Essentially, all helmets have a built-in expiration date and lose efficacy over time. That’s because most helmets designed for gravity and speed sports like skiing, snowboard, climbing, and biking, are made with an expanded polystyrene liner known as EPS. This liner is packed with plastic beads and air bubbles designed to crunch down during an impact and cushion your head. Back to our car accident analogy, the liner works like an airbag. It’s good for one impact, and then it is considered compromised and needs to be replaced. The same is true with a helmet.
Some helmet companies have developed a newer technology using a material that retains its shape and allows for multiple impacts in the same fall, but they warn it won’t hold up to repetitive or severe hits.
According to the nonprofit Snell Foundation, an organization dedicated to research, education, testing, and development of helmet safety standards, a helmet should be replaced every two to five seasons. Hair product, sweat, and cleaning solutions all break down the liner and interior padding. So, if you’re known for sporting stylish helmet hair at après ski, default to the two-year mark. And, if your helmet has been in a crash, it needs to be replaced immediately whether there is visible damage or not. While replacing a helmet after a crash or every few seasons can add up, it’s definitely cheaper than a trip to the emergency department.
When purchasing a new helmet, here are some tips to ensure you select the right lid for your noggin:
- Try it on before you buy it. Sizing varies from brand to brand, so don’t just grab a size off the shelf and assume it will fit. Helmets should be snug and there should not be space between your head and the padding.
- Consider your hairstyle and try to be consistent with it when wearing the helmet. If you have long thick hair when you try it on yet wear your hair in a braid when using the helmet, it will need to be adjusted. Same goes for mid-season haircuts.
- You helmet should sit low enough in the front to protect your forehead, leaving about one inch between your eyebrows and your helmet. The back of the helmet should not touch your neck.
- The chin strap should be centered under your chin, with space for only one finger — two if you have small digits.
- Once on and fastened, a helmet should not move in any direction.
- Invest in helmets with an ASTM label certifying it for your sport. You can learn more about the American Society for Testing and Materials at: www.astm.org.
- Finally, Virginia Tech Helmet Ratings has a new, user friendly source for safety ratings for a variety of sports helmets that is a great resource when you’re ready to purchase your next helmet.