By Beth Jones
On a perfect, sunny winter day, I watched helplessly as my son was slammed to the ground by a girl hurtling down our local sledding hill on a giant inner tube. She was moving at such velocity that she barely slowed even after knocking him down. Remarkably, other than a bruised ankle and a bruised ego, my son was fine.
But the girl, splayed on her back and unable to steer, was spun around by the collision. The impact sent her spinning and bouncing crazily, and then she flew off the tube like a rag doll. She barely missed a tree and landed with an ugly thud, slamming her head on the icy snow. I was the first to reach her and she was initially unresponsive, awake but staring blankly at the sky. Eventually her parents ran over and she stumbled to her feet. Then she began crying hysterically.
If her parents took her for a hospital evaluation (and I hope they did), they’d have found that her collision wasn’t a rare occurrence. There are a limited number of sledding days even in frosty winters like this one, yet an estimated 23,000 people are treated annually in the United States for sledding injuries, with the highest percentage being children between ages 10-14.
“Sledding injuries are common,” acknowledges Dr. Eric Glissmeyer, a fellow in Pediatric Emergency Medicine at the University of Utah. “They range from inconvenient and painful, like broken arms or collar-bones, to serious and life-threatening, such as skull fractures, and neck and brain injuries. As one would expect, the steeper the hill and the faster the speed and the more crowded the sledding day, the more likely injuries are to occur.”
And those dastardly, unsteerable, oversized inner tubes rank at the top of the sledding danger list. A study in the journal Pediatrics evaluated sledding injuries from 1997-2007, and found: “Traumatic brain injuries were more likely to occur with snow tubes than with other sled types.”
“The inner tubes are bouncy and you literally have no control,” explains Dr. David Mooney, director of the Trauma Program and an assistant professor of surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital. “Most of the real injuries we see are when people hit something. We’ve had horrible head injuries with kids hitting trees. With tubes they spin around and even if a kid is trying to be a good citizen (and travel feet first) it could spin when they’re halfway down the hill.”
Tubes are unpredictable, and bouncy, which makes them fun, and very popular. While helmets have become standard (if not required) equipment for many kids’ sports – bicycling, hockey, skiing, lacrosse, baseball – sledding has remained something of a Wild West. And although sledding is essentially the process of throwing a child (or yourself) onto a slippery piece of plastic on a slippery slope that generally has trees and other obstacles on it, helmets are largely absent.
“The big question always comes out with helmets,” admits Dr. Mooney. “It’s a tough one.” Like many other people, he doesn’t want to legislate a sport that’s defined by its sense of freedom, but he wants people to understand the risks. “If you’re going feet first down an appropriate hill that doesn’t have trees on it or objects like walls, the chance of getting a severe head injury is very, very low.”
But then there’s the variable of the tubes. “I think tubes can not be controlled. They go really fast and the likelihood of being bounced off is much higher than a sled. If someone puts their kid on that they need to recognize the kid will not be able to control it. They’re taking a higher risk, and they might wear a helmet.”
Or, better yet, float on the tube during summer vacation and bring a steerable sled to the local hill.
Moments after Dr. Mooney and I spoke, he admitted a new trauma patient. A child with a head injury from a sledding accident.
(Below: A bit of dark Canadian sledding humor to make up for the frightening cautions above.)