Common Tread

Study shows helmets do not increase the risk of neck injuries

Mar 07, 2018

Riders who don't wear helmets cite a variety of reasons: Their feelings about their personal freedoms, claims that helmets restrict visibility, a preference for feeling the wind. One old reason some people point to is a claim that helmets cause neck injuries in a crash. A study released yesterday rebuts that claim.

The theory was that the weight of the helmet made it more likely for the head to whip around in a tumble, causing damage to the neck, fracturing the cervical vertebrae (the backbone between the skull and the ribs) and possibly severing the spinal cord. In Wisconsin, three doctors studied five years of records at the University of Wisconsin Hospital Trauma Center and found the theory didn't hold up. Their findings were published yesterday in The Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine.

The researchers looked at motorcyclists who crashed and were brought to the trauma center between 2010 and 2015, a total of 1,061 patients. Since Wisconsin does not require adults to wear a helmet, 738 (69.6 percent) of the patients were not wearing a helmet and 323 (30.4 percent) were. The study actually found that 15.4 percent of those who were not wearing helmets suffered cervical spine injuries while 7.4 percent of those wearing a helmet had neck injuries — just the opposite of what the old theory would have us believe. Neck fractures occurred in 10.8 percent of unhelmeted riders and 4.6 percent of riders wearing helmets.

You can read the full findings of the study at the journal's web site. The researchers not only explain their methodology, but also talk about other research into the issue, including a 1986 study that is often used as the basis for the claim that helmets cause neck injuries in a crash.

Lots of people won't like me saying this, but I believe a lot of times we decide first what we want to do and then look for evidence to justify doing it, rather than looking for reliable information that we can use as a basis for deciding what to do. If helmets are not legally required where you ride, you're free to make your own choice. But I always believe in making choices with as much information as possible on hand.