Do Helmets Protect Spines or Can They Make Injuries Worse?

Category: Spinal Cord Injury | Author: Stefano Sinicropi | Date: May 15, 2017

Helmet Spine Injuries

If you’re not a frequent motorcycle rider, you probably think the above question is a bit ridiculous. Of course a rider wearing a helmet is going to suffer fewer spine injuries during an accident than a rider without a helmet. But is it really that simple?

According to some riders, the answer is not that straightforward, and depending on who you ask, you might be surprised at a rider’s perspective on helmets. Some riders state that helmets  restrict vision, hearing and range of focus, leading to an increased likelihood of an accident, while others state that the weight of a helmet actually increases a person’s risk of a serious neck injury during an accident due to the biomechanical forces at play. So do motorcycle helmets really reduce your risk of a head or spine injury?

Motorcycle Helmets and Spine Health

Contrary to those theories, a recent study set out to prove that helmets do in fact help protect the spines and skulls of motorcycle drivers. For their study, researchers analyzed helmet use and cervical spine injuries at a level 1 trauma center over the course of five years. At the conclusion of the study, researchers found that helmets were associated with a reduced likelihood of cervical spine injury.

“While our study does not explain mechanisms, the results show a significant association between wearing a helmet and a reduction in the risk of cervical spine injury,” said study senior author Nathaniel Brooks, MD, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. “We can’t say why, and the study does not show causation [of not wearing a helmet with cervical spine injury], but just in looking at the number from a level 1 trauma center, we see that patients wearing helmets have lower rates of these types of injuries than unhelmeted riders.”

Helmets and Spine Safety

Here’s a closer look at the statistics. Of the 1,064 patients who were admitted to the trauma center, 735 were not wearing helmets and 329 were wearing helmets at the time of the crash. Other findings from the study include:

  • Non-helmeted riders had significantly higher rates of cervical spine fractures (10.8%) compared to helmeted riders (4.3%).
  • The average injury severity score was roughly 20% worse for helmeted riders than unhelmeted riders.
  • Unhelmeted days had longer average hospital stays and intensive care unit stays than helmeted riders.
  • Unhelmeted riders had a significantly higher rate of death than helmeted riders.
  • The incidence of C1 and C5 fractures were significantly lower among helmeted riders compared to unhelmeted riders, as were spinal ligament injuries.

“Our findings showed helmet use to be associated with decreased mortality, shorter ICU length of stay and shorter hospital length of stay,”said first author Paul Page, MD, a neurosurgery resident at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health.

So if you are a motorcycle enthusiast, be sure to grab your helmet each and every time you ride. The weather has turned and riding season is here, but we don’t want to see you in our clinic with a spine injury, so please wear a helmet every time you climb on your bike! If you do end up injured, don’t hesitate to reach out to Dr. Sinicropi right away.

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