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Ski helmet use on the rise, injury rates flat

Thursday - 1/2/2014, 9:18pm  ET

WASHINGTON - Is wearing a ski helmet an excuse for risky behavior on the slopes?

Formula One racing great Michael Schumacher is the latest celebrity to suffer a life-threatening brain injury while skiing with a helmet.

Though required in only one state, New Jersey, helmets have become a standard piece of equipment for many skiers. The National Ski Areas Association estimates 67 percent of skiers and snowboarders wear them. Although their use is up, the rate of severe brain injuries is unchanged.

Dr. Jason DeLuigi, director of the sports medicine program at Medstar National Rehabilitation Network, says "it is well documented that helmets do prevent injuries, but it doesn't prevent every injury."

He says the Winter X-Games and other extreme sports inspire people, who are "skiing faster and performing tricks."

Some, like Schumacher, ski on ungroomed slopes with little snow cover to protect them from obstacles like rocks and downed branches. Others try tricky moves without adequate training.

DeLuigi says some skiers and snowboarders think they are invincible, and believe the helmet will keep them safe no matter what they do.

"The helmet, because you are wearing it, gives you that false sense of security that it 'really doesn't matter if I fall because nothing is going to happen because I do have a helmet'," he says.

Another problem is that some people wear helmets that are rented or borrowed and do not fit properly or don't provide enough coverage for the skull.

DeLuigi has extensive experience working with disabled athletes, and is a physician for the U.S. Paralympic team that will compete at the winter games in Sochi, Russia.

He says all the skiers on the team wear helmets, and anyone else planning to take to the slopes should do the same.

Studies have shown that helmets do help prevent injuries such as concussions, scalp lacerations and skull fractures. As for those traumatic brain injuries, De Luigi says the best preventative medicine for skiers is to avoid risky behavior, and know their limitations.

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