World Champion Skier suffers Critical Brain Injury

Sarah Burke is in critical condition with a severe traumatic brain injury following a practise run accident at Park City, Utah on 10 January 2012.  The 29 years old freestyle skiing champion was airlifted to hospital and placed into a coma, to relieve stress on her brain, before surgery to repair a torn vertebral artery.  The artery supplies blood to the brainstem (which controls consciousness) and a tear can disrupt blood supply and cause cranial bleeding, which may lead to brain damage or death.

Risk of Head Injury

At the start of the skiing season, Sarah’s accident is a tragic reminder of the dangers on the slopes, last brought to attention following the death of actress Natasha Richardson, Liam Neeson's wife, in March 2009.  Head injuries make up 10-20% of all injuries suffered on the slopes and about 10% of these are potentially serious brain injuries.

How can Head Injury Occur?

Collisions, with another person or object.  As skiers easily reach speeds of 30-40mph, impact forces can be high.  Collisions cause most serious head injuries.

  • Impacts, after a fall onto hard snow/ice can affect anyone, though are most common amongst beginners and usually result in an impact to the back or side of the head.
  • Lift accidents, such as a blow on the head from a swinging T-bar or chair can pose a danger to anyone near by.

Risk of Death

Most traumatic deaths occur as a result of hitting a tree.  USA statistics show an average fatality rate of 0.68 deaths per million skier/snowboarder visit, which, to put this into context, is half the rate of being struck by lightning.


Up to 80% of skiers and boarders wear a helmet which can prevent potentially serious head injury, particularly in a fall.  However, when the level of injury overwhelms the protection a helmet can provide, it does not significantly reduce the chance of fatality.

Head Injury UK: Here to help

Should you, or someone close to you, have suffered a serious head injury whilst skiiing or snowboarding which may have been someone else’s fault, then please contact Andy Shaw of Head Injury UK to discuss how we can help.

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