eading for helmets?
Doctors, citing the risks, want sledders and snowboarders to wear protective headgear. But it's an idea most parents and kids have never even considered.
Parents, when you're dressing your kids in nine layers of fleece and down and wool before they hit the sledding hill, you might want to add one more piece: a helmet.
The American Academy of Pediatrics believes children should wear helmets when sledding, and, in interviews, several local doctors agreed.
But the push to make helmets a part of sledding -- the "final frontier of unbridled freedom" in our car-seat culture, according to one Boston Globe writer -- may be an uphill climb. The idea has been greeted online with mocking jokes about wanting to protect our precious snowflakes from actual snowflakes. Parents here are divided on the issue.
Anne Horton insists that her 17-year-old daughter, Sarah, wear a helmet when she rides her horse. But wear a helmet for sledding?
"I never really thought about it for winter sports," said the New Holland mother, on a recent bone-chilling evening at the Ice Park at Clipper Magazine Stadium.
Kim Reber, of Ronks, said she has a son who is a skateboarder, and she wishes he'd wear a helmet while skateboarding, but she hasn't considered encouraging helmet use for sledding.
Karen Umholtz, of Marietta, said her four young children don't generally sled on large hills, but she could see a need for helmets "in certain situations."
"I don't see the point," her husband, Eric Umholtz, said. "The next step is to put every kid in bubble wrap before they head out the door."
But doctors say children can sustain serious, life-altering -- and sometimes, life-ending -- injuries while sledding.
On New Year's Day, in Nevada, an 11-year-old girl on a sled crashed into a metal fence and died. The Las Vegas Metro Police subsequently urged parents to put helmets on their sledding kids, a local television station reported.
In Washington, D.C., children under 16 are required to wear helmets while sledding.
More than 20,000 children each year are treated in U.S. emergency departments for sledding injuries, according to a major study published in Pediatrics. The 2010 study found that more than a quarter of the injuries were fractures. The head was the most commonly injured body part. Nine percent of the cases were traumatic brain injuries.
"Twenty thousand injuries a year for an activity you can only do a couple days a year is big," Lara McKenzie, the study's lead researcher, told NBC News.
"And that's probably an underestimate," said Dr. Louis Marotti, a neurosurgeon with Argires, Becker, Marotti & Westphal, who is also on the medical staff at Lancaster General Health.
He pointed out that a great many sledding injuries are treated not in the ER but in doctors' offices.
It may be true that you never wore a helmet while sledding as a kid, and you turned out OK.
But Dr. Mark Iantosca, a pediatric neurosurgeon at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, pointed out that people could smoke in restaurants when today's parents were kids. "Does that mean that was a good idea?" he asked.
Much more is known about brain injuries now, and it's clear that the consequences of sledding without a helmet can be dire, he said.
Iantosca said that the neurosurgery department at Hershey Medical Center is consulted on five to 10 moderate to severe head injuries resulting from winter sports (sledding, skiing and skating) each year.
"A child can get a severe injury that will affect the course of the rest of their life," Iantosca said, noting that such an injury can have the same repercussions -- loss of motor, speech and cognitive function -- as stroke in an older person.
He said that sledding can be particularly dangerous because sleds generally cannot be steered. Those colorful plastic disks or saucers that are popular now can send a child whirling and sliding down a hill at a rapid speed. And snow tubes can be particularly treacherous, he said.
Children "can reach speeds of over 25 miles per hour sledding -- sometimes, faster, with inflatable sleds -- and there's not a lot of control over what direction you're heading," Iantosca said.
Dr. Frances Gross, LGH's chief of general pediatrics, said, "What we try to tell parents is that if you're doing any activity that is going to make your child go faster than they can run, the speed they pick up is going to impact their head if they go down."
Asked if her practice, Roseville Pediatrics, sees sledding injuries, she said, "Oh my gosh, yes" -- those injuries include facial lacerations, head injuries, and clavicle and other fractures.
Marotti said that the adults are starting to realize that some activities, "which we used to let our kids do, and not even think twice about," now require some concessions to safety.
"No one wore helmets when we rode bicycles," he said. "Now, you look irresponsible to your friends if you don't."
Kids may be reluctant to wear helmets while sledding, but "the more it catches on, the more acceptable it's going to become," Marotti said. "Eventually, kids will find a way to make it cool. ... It will become part of their culture."
"Kids always think, 'Am I cool?' " said Mikayla Boldizar, 11, of Manheim Township. So it might be tough to be the first kid in one's neighborhood to wear a helmet for sledding. She hasn't seen any kids wearing one yet.
If doctors want kids to wear helmets while sledding, she said, they ought to talk to kids at their annual check-ups. "Sometimes it works when you tell them what would happen if you don't," she advised.
That might work: Marotti said that any embarrassment kids might feel about donning helmets does not compare to the consequences of brain injury, and the complications that can accompany brain injury treatment, he said.
On the ski slopes, helmet usage is already on the rise.
Chris Dudding, the marketing director at Ski Roundtop in York County, said he sees at least half of the skiers and snowboarders at Roundtop wearing helmets. "It would have been a fraction of that five years ago."
The children's skiing and snowboarding equipment packages at Roundtop all include helmets now, he said. But among the facility's snow-tubing customers, Dudding said, there's "virtually no demand for helmets."
So what kind of helmet to wear? Sledding helmets aren't readily available. Some online sources say that bicycle helmets are better than no helmet at all, but Iantosca recommended winter sports helmets for sledding and skiing.
"Other helmet types, like hockey or bicycle helmets, while possibly offering some protection, are not adequate," Iantosca said.
Gross not only wants kids to wear helmets, she wants parents to use their heads about where their children sled. "A lot of times injuries happen because it may not have been an age-appropriate hill for that child," the pediatrician said.
Marotti agreed that location is important: A slope studded with trees, utility poles and other obstacles makes for a risky sledding course, as does a hill that leads to a parking lot, street or frozen pond. And he said that engine-driven or motorized vehicles (snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles) should never be used to pull sleds.
Parents need to be educated about the risk their children take when sledding without helmets, Iantosca said. "Once people know about it, they'll decide whether they want to participate in lowering their risk. ... Hopefully they will."n