Zachary Ashwell is an avid mountain bike rider who used to spend almost every weekend in Whistler, and he knows the potential hazards Whistler Mountain Bike Park riders face after they hop off the chairlift at the top of the park.
He is also a fourth-year medical student with a background in engineering who recently studied 898 Whistler Health Care Centre case reports from the 2009 mountain bike season. The specific cases all involved people who were hurt while riding in the bike park between May 16 and Oct. 12 of 2009.
Amongst the findings, Ashwell discovered: 86 per cent of the 2009 patients were male, August is the worst month for injuries, 12 per cent of the injuries suffered in 2009 were considered potentially threatening to life, limb or function, and more than 75 per cent of the bones broken in the bike park were upper body bones.
Ashwell found that the most typical bike park injury victim is a 26-year-old male injured between 1 and 4 p.m.
The people who came to the clinic with injuries in 2009 mainly arrived by ambulance and the most severe injuries involved internal bleeding or internal organ injury, spinal cord injury or traumatic brain injury.
"Although most spinal injuries were compression fractures of the thoracic and lumbar spine without cord involvement, one patient did have a C7 spine injury resulting in quadriplegia," Ashwell wrote in his study.
The data also showed that 8.5 per cent of the people injured in the bike park during the study period were transferred for a higher level of care. Seven were taken from Whistler by helicopter, 62 were moved by ambulance and five were taken away from Whistler for further care by personal vehicle.
Speaking from his home in Seattle, Ashwell said this is the first of what he hopes will be a number of studies into mountain bike safety. He'd like to see safety equipment design changes that will make a difference by protecting riders from the most common injuries that result in weeks or months of lost time at work while injuries heal.
"I have a few friends who have been injured quite severely mountain biking," said Ashwell.
He described his study into the 2009 mountain bike park injuries a pilot study. His goal is to conduct more studies to answer the questions generated by this first look into mountain bike injuries.
"An unexpected finding was the number of closed head injuries despite the mandatory helmet requirement," wrote Ashwell. "Of riders seen at the clinic, 11.2 per cent had suffered a closed head injury as diagnosed by the clinic physician without the use of computed tomography. Although most of these were minor, there were eight cases in which patients had marked decline in neurologic function."
He said the term "closed head injuries" is a reference to concussion.
Ashwell discovered that the most commonly broken bones were found in the shoulder area. He found that 122 fractures involved shoulder bones. The next highest number of fractures was in wrists. A total of 109 broken wrists were reported during the study period. Fingers bones were the next most commonly broken parts.
He found that lower body fractures are less common than upper body breaks. He calculated 25 ankle breaks and 13 broken feet.
The information Ashwell worked with had very little detail regarding the protective gear worn by the patients treated at the medical centre. Only five per cent of the patient records had notes about safety equipment worn at the time of the injury.
Of the 24 cases where safety equipment notes were made only one was documented as not wearing armor. The other 23 were documented as wearing a variety of protective devices beyond a helmet, including knee and elbow pads, full body protective suits and neck guards.
"Further research should include exposure information as well as specific information about which trail features are associated with injury, evaluate the long-term outcomes after bike park injuries, assess the costs of care after injury, and attempt to identify acceptable injury rates in this increasingly popular sport," Ashwell wrote in his study conclusion.
The study was published in the latest issue of Wilderness and Environmental Medicine. The full study can be viewed at www.wemjournal.org.
Based on the results of the study, the publication concluded research into appropriate mountain bike safety equipment is needed and risk avoidance measures are required due to the serious risks associated with mountain biking.
Elsevier Inc. publishes the Wilderness and Environmental Medicine Journal for the Wilderness Medical Society based in Salt Lake City, Utah.
The society is holdings its sixth World Congress of Wilderness Medicine in Whistler between July 13 and 17.