Concussion Dangers on the Sochi Slopes

Difficult tricks on the slope leave athletes at risk for head injury.

ByABC News
February 6, 2014, 11:33 AM

Feb. 6, 2014— -- This year’s winter Olympics will feature plenty of death-defying feats as skiers and snowboarders speed downhill or launch into the air, flipping and spinning, to compete in half-pipe and slopestyle events.

However, these dangerous tricks and trips down the mountain come with a real threat. Experts say that the bigger the jumps and flips, and the higher the downhill speeds, the greater the chance of concussion or other traumatic brain injury that could leave the athletes at risk for long-term problems.

Dr. Stuart Willick, professor of sports medicine at the University of Utah Orthopaedic Center, said there isn’t much research about long-term health effects to professional skiers or snowboarders, but that it’s likely that if they experience multiple concussions they are more at risk for degenerative brain disease such as Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which has been found in multiple former football players.

“The long-term effects in concussions in snowboarding and skiing has not been studied,” said Willick. “If we extrapolate from other sports, such as professional football ... we know that repeated concussion can have long-term health consequences.”

While media attention regarding concussion risk has focused on pro football players, who get hit countless times during their career, multiple professional snowboarders and skiers have reported suffering multiple concussions during their careers.

In the HBO documentary “The Crash Reel,” snowboarder Shaun White said in an interview he had suffered nine concussions.

Slopestyle skier Keri Herman, 31, told ABC News correspondent Matt Gutman that she doesn’t know the exact number of concussions she’s had although it’s probably fewer than 10. However, after suffering these head injuries she’s had to spend days to weeks in total darkness for concussion therapy and knows she is one bad fall away from a life-long injury.

This week female snowboarder Marika Enne of Finland suffered a concussion while practicing on the Sochi slopestyle course, according to the Associated Press. She had to be carried off the half-pipe on a stretcher.

Dr. Kerry Brega, neurosurgeon and associate professor of neurosurgery at University of Colorado, said it can be extremely difficult to diagnose a concussion, since the symptoms are so varied. She said that the difficulty in diagnosing a concussion can mean athletes may compete when they’re not ready, putting themselves at risk of more severe injury.

“You worry someone had a concussion in training, whether they are able to process things as quickly as they must under normal circumstances,” said Brega. “What they are doing requires such extraordinary precision. Just small changes in how quickly you’re processing things may make a significant difference.”

Brega said having one concussion significantly increases a person’s risk of having another. In rare cases, if a person with a concussion suffers another blow before they’ve recovered, they are at risk of fatal brain swelling, even if the second hit appears minor.

American Olympic teams have made steps toward recognizing the risk and there will be at least one concussion expert to tend to athletes at hockey and skiing events, according to the Associated Press. Dr. Jeff Kutcher, a neurologist from Michigan, will be in one of two hockey arenas and will be the on-the-hill physician for three skiing events.

Football Head Injuries Due to Bigger, Faster Players

Kutcher told the AP he is willing to keep athletes out of competition if he sees signs of concussion or other distress.

"I do feel a little bit of pressure," he said. "I understand the gravity of the situation and needing to first and foremost do my job as a neurologist regardless of setting or scenario. It doesn't matter if it's a training run or a gold-medal run or any scenario at all. It is the health of the athletes that I'm there for."

ABC News’ Matt Gutman and the Associated Press contributed to this article.