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Mountain Bikers Risk Spinal Injuries: Study

June 5, 2010

A new study of spinal fractures and spinal cord injuries associated with mountain biking suggests the sport may be just as risky as diving, football and cheerleading.

“The medical, personal, and societal costs of these injuries are high,” wrote the authors of the study in a report published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine. 

Mountain biking, which involves high speeds and long vertical drops over extreme terrain, is growing in popularity.  But researchers warn the sport invites a risk of serious spinal injuries, with one of every six cases studied resulting in total paralysis.

Such accidents typically affect young, male, recreational riders, they said.

“People need to know that the activities they choose to engage in may carry with them unique and specific risks,” said Dr. Marcel Dvorak of the University of British Columbia in Canada during an interview with Reuters.

“Helmets will not protect you from these injuries, nor will wearing Ninja Turtle-like body armor.”

While prior studies have looked at the range of injuries sustained by mountain bikers, and spinal injuries in general across a broad variety of sports, none had yet examined the specific risks of spinal cord injury among mountain bikers.

Dvorak and his team identified 102 men and 5 women who were treated at British Columbia’s primary spine center between 1995 and 2007 after suffering a mountain biking accident.

On average, the patients were 33 years old, and all but two were recreational riders.

The researchers determined that over the 13-year study period, the annual rate of spinal injury among those that mountain biked was one in 500,000 British Columbia residents.  Furthermore, mountain bikers accounted for 4 percent of all spinal trauma admissions to the center.

Surgery was required for roughly two-thirds of the mountain bikers, but the most serious injuries were the 40 percent involving the spinal cord.  Of those, more than four in ten led to complete paralysis, the researchers found.

“Wrist fractures and facial fractures are common”¦but spine injuries are the most severe with the most profound long-term consequences,” Dvorak said.

The majority of mountain bikers were injured as a result of either being thrust over the handlebars (going “endo”) or falling from significant heights (“hucking”), he said. 

In both cases, the result was often a severe impact to the head that generated trauma down the neck and spine.

“The higher the jump or fall, the higher the risk,” Dvorak said.

In a counterintuitive finding, the researchers discovered no relationship between whether or not a rider wore a helmet and the severity of his or her injuries.

“Helmets are good in preventing head injuries, but they do not in any way protect your neck,” Dvorak explained.

Another unique aspect of mountain biking is its environment, which typically includes remote, mountainous and forested areas.

Some of Dvorak’s patients had fallen while riding solo, or at the back of a group, and were not discovered for an hour or longer after they were injured.    And even then, the remote environments often made it difficult for ambulances and rescue helicopters to reach an injured rider.

Researchers say injury prevention should be the primary goal.  Dvorak advises mountain bikers to be cautious about tricks or jumps, to know their terrain well, to ride in groups and stay together.

The study was published online in the May 20, 2010 American Journal of Sports Medicine.

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