Employee & Community Health

Winter sports can be hard on your head

1/24/2017 by Dr. David Soma

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Winter sports from sledding to snowmobiling to figure skating can be hard on your head - literally. Contact with ice, frozen ground, hard-packed snow and obstacles like trees and skating-rink boards, combined with high speeds, can cause concussions or traumatic brain injury (TBI). 

A concussion is a brain injury that results in certain symptoms and signs. It's not a bruise to the brain, a fracture or anything you can see with typical imaging like an MRI, CT or x-ray. It's usually caused by a blow to the head or body that causes the head to whip back and forth sharply. Basically, the brain is shaken or collides with the inside of the skull. 

Because it isn't visible, concussion is recognized by how the person functions, and it may affect them in the following ways: 

  • Physical: headaches, nausea, dizziness
  • Mental: difficulty concentrating, focus, memory
  • Mood: sad, angry
  • Sleep/energy: fatigue, more sleepy, but also having trouble falling asleep

Less than 10% of concussions involve loss of consciousness or being "knocked out," so these other signs help your provider make a diagnosis. 

If you suspect that someone has a concussion, they should be evaluated promptly by a medical provider. Not all concussions need to be seen in the Emergency Department, unless there's a concern about a more severe injury, which may include a skull fracture, bleeding or other associated injuries. Treatment of concussions or TBI should be guided by a medical professional; it can include rest, monitoring the individual and addressing their symptoms, as well as involvement of other specialized surgical and non-surgical teams. 

Whatever your winter sport, you can protect your head by: 

  • Being mindful of your surroundings, including people around you, to avoid collisions. 
  • Fitting your skill level to the activity. If you're most comfortable snowboarding on an intermediate slope, hold off on the black diamond runs until your skills improve. 
  • Wearing a helmet and other protective gear. 
  • Developing your neck and core strength, which can help prevent whiplash during a fall or collision or save you from taking a tumble in the first place. 

Winter activities help keep us in shape and fend off cabin fever while we're having fun. So don't forego the opportunity to play in our winter wonderland. Just take common-sense precautions to protect your head. 

Dr. David Soma is a pediatrician in Employee and Community Health's (ECH) Division of Community Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. He serves as the volunteer team physician for the mayo High School football team and provides education and guidance on medical issues for the Rochester Youth Football Association (RYFA).