The death of freestyle skier Sarah Burke has forced the safety of extreme sports into the spotlight.
Burke, 29, died Thursday, nine days after crashing on a half-pipe course in Utah. The Winter X Games champion and 2005 half-pipe world gold medalist suffered "severe irreversible damage to her brain due to lack of oxygen and blood after cardiac arrest," according to a statement from her publicist.
Competitive skiers and snowboarders are no strangers to injuries ranging from serious to fatal. In 2001, American gold-medal-winning skier Bill Johnson experienced a near-fatal crash that put him in a coma during an attempt to qualify for the 2002 Winter Games. More recently, at the 2006 Turin Olympics, skier Lindsey Vonn crashed during a training run. The accident ended her metal hopes but she was able to walk away with only a hip injury.
Kevin Pearce said snowboarding gave him the ride of a lifetime until an accident on a Utah halfpipe in 2009 left him with a traumatic brain injury (TBI). After battling through years of rehabilitation, Pearce regained his ability to talk, walk, eat and, in December, he hit the slopes for the first time since the accident.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that nearly 1.7 million Americans experience a TBI every year. Experts say sports-related injuries are the second leading cause, and the extreme nature of skiing and snowboarding makes these sports particularly hazardous.
"For any sport that involves inverting yourself or increases the chance you might lose your balance, there's always a risk of head injuries," said Dr. Alan Hoffer, a neurological surgeon at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio. "That's probably more true for a sport like hers, but we certainly see head injuries -- even severe head injuries -- in what might be considered safer sports like football and hockey. Flipping in the air increases your risk but in other sports you can get knocked down.
"It's certainly a real tragedy when things like this happen."
In Burke's case, Hoffer said, it is difficult to tell exactly how her injury led to her death. Initial reports suggest that Burke ruptured a vertebral artery, a blood vessel that supplies the brain, but Hoffer said the additional head trauma may have been the culprit.
While Burke was wearing a helmet at the time of her accident, Hoffer said that even this type of head protection cannot prevent all injuries to the brain.
"The goal of helmets and any protective equipment in general is to buffer the effects of an impact," he said. "Certainly, as we see in other sports such as football, they're not able to prevent all injuries."
Hoffer said that if there is anything that casual skiiers can learn from this tragedy, it is to approach the slopes with caution -- and to know how to react quickly to a situation in which a friend or loved one may have sustained a TBI.
"Even casual skiers do have some risk," he said. "You can never tell when you're going to catch an edge and go flying head over heel. People run into lift poles or jumps and come down badly. Know your limitations. Don't go on a run that's too difficult. And make sure you're somewhere that if you do need help, you can get it."