Wearing a helmet while skiing or snowboarding reduces the risk of head injury by 35 per cent, new research shows.
"That's significant and we're probably looking at the lower end of the protective effect," Brent Hagel, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Calgary, said in an interview.
In fact, the meta-analysis - a compilation and analysis of earlier research - showed that helmets can reduce the risk of head injury by as much as 60 per cent in some settings and as little as 15 per cent in others.
But Dr. Hagel noted that the data did not allow researchers to probe the quality of the helmet being worn by skiers and snowboarders, so the benefits of wearing a helmet are probably underestimated.
(In Canada, there are no legislated standards for ski helmets the way there are for hockey helmets. There are also no laws that make ski helmets mandatory, as there are with bicycle helmets in some jurisdictions.)
The new research, published in Tuesday's edition of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, compiled and analyzed 12 studies of recreational skiers and snowboarders in North America, Europe and Asia.
All told, there were 46,564 people whose information was included in the study; all of them had injuries to the head and/or neck that were serious enough to require first aid from the ski patrol or medical attention at a hospital or clinic.
Only about one in five of those who suffered head injuries wore helmets.
Dr. Hagel and his team found that, over all, wearing a helmet reduced the risk of head injury by 35 per cent.
The researchers did not see additional neck injuries in those wearing helmets. (A common argument against wearing a helmet is that the impact will be dispersed to the neck.)
The research showed that, in children under the age of 13, the benefit of wearing a helmet was slightly greater than among adults.
"But there's nothing magical that happens when you're an adult. You are still at risk of injury," Dr. Hagel said.
The benefits of wearing a helmet were about the same for skiers and snowboarders, and for beginners and advanced snow enthusiasts alike.
A helmet provided the greatest protection in lift-related incidents, the study showed. It provided the least protection in out-of-bounds incidents because those injuries are often catastrophic.
Richard Kinar, a director with the Brain Injury Association of Canada, said he was not surprised by the findings but said much more could be done to prevent head injuries on the slopes.
"Obligatory helmet use is something we would really like to see but it's a stumbling block with the industry," he said. "A lot of ski hills won't even put helmets on their employees - they set a really bad example."
Mr. Kinar, a former professional skier who had lobbied tirelessly to make the sport safer, said having standards for ski helmets sold in Canada would also greatly reduce the risk of injuries.
"Helmets really do help but they have to be good quality and people actually have to wear them," Mr. Kinar said.
About 4.2 million Canadians practise downhill skiing or snowboarding, according to the Canadian Ski Council. Since 2004, the number of skiers has increased 25 per cent and snowboarders 23 per cent.
As the popularity of these sports has risen, so too has the number of traumatic injuries and deaths.