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by Paul Auerbach, M.D.
Ski season is upon us. Many experts (including myself) are
of the opinion that helmets should be worn by all downhill skiers and
snowboarders to help prevent head injuries. One of the “con” arguments proposed
by some persons who object to wearing helmets is that they interfere with
skiing in such a way as to perhaps make it more dangerous. In their opinion,
this might occur by obscuring peripheral vision or diminishing the perception
of sound. A very important article entitled article entitled “Do Ski Helmets
Affect Reaction Time to Peripheral Stimuli?” (Wilderness & Environmental Medicine:22,148-150,2011) has
recently been published by Gerhard Ruedl and colleagues from the Department of
Sports Science at the University of Innsbruck in Austria.
The investigators sought to determine whether or not ski
helmet use affects reaction time to peripheral stimuli. They used the
Compensatory-Tracking-Test (CTT) in a laboratory situation to study 10 men and
10 women during four conditions in a randomized order: wearing a ski cap,
wearing a ski helmet, wearing a ski cap and goggles, and wearing a ski helmet
The CTT is performed by using a video projector that
projects on a screen. The subjects being studied are seated at a table and
instructed to respond to visual stimuli that appear on the screen, notably
including the periphery of vision. The results were interesting. The lowest
(quickest) mean reaction time (approximately 477 milliseconds) was noted for persons
wearing only a ski cap. This was not statistically significantly different from
the mean reaction time noted for persons wearing a ski helmet (approximately
478 milliseconds). The persons wearing both the goggles and cap or helmet had
longer mean reaction times (514 milliseconds and 498 milliseconds,
respectively). Note that all of these times are around one-half second.
What are the take-aways from this study? First, it is
important to note that this is a simulation that involved only one measure—peripheral
vision. It did not take into account the influence of sound. It was not a field
experiment, so the influences of extraneous factors were not included. Such
factors might be sounds (e.g., ski and wind noise, talking, etc.), thickness of
helmet or design of goggles, ambient weather (e.g., sunshine or cloud cover), speed
of travel on skis and snowboard, and so forth. However, it somewhat counters
the notion that wearing a helmet per se diminishes reaction time to external
visual stimuli, regardless of the situation. Furthermore, in a very controlled
setting, the differences in reaction time are very, very small—approximately 30
milliseconds (30/1000 of a second), which would not seem to be a huge factor in
causing ski accidents. So, while more studies need to be somehow accomplished
in more realistic field settings, this is a good start to dispelling the
automatic notion that wearing protective helmets is harmful to skiers wishing
to avoid the sorts of accidents that cause head injuries.
Copyright Paul Auerbach
with permission from the Medicine for the Outdoors Blog
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