Whoa, nelly: Equestrian sports found to be a top cause of adult brain trauma

horsesafety-227x300Get out of the crowds and traffic of the nation’s capital, and into the rolling green of Virginia and Maryland, where thrives the stately and multibillion-dollar business of breeding, raising, showing, and riding horses. That bucolic equestrian life also has a less-known health worry:  Horseback riding, not a contact sport, turns out to be the top adult athletic endeavor that causes traumatic brain injuries.

Researchers in San Francisco scrutinized just under 5,000 cases, recorded between 2003 and 2012 in a federal nationwide data bank of adult sports-related trauma incidents, finding that “equestrian sports were the greatest contributors to sports-related” traumatic brain injuries, they reported in their recent article in the Journal of Neurosurgery.

As ABC-TV News noted of the researchers’ study, they found that “45.2 percent of [traumatic brain injuries] among adults were related to horseback riding, dwarfing the other causes. The second-leading cause of sports-related traumatic brain injury was falls or hits from contact sports like football and soccer, but that accounted for just 20.2 percent.”

Unlike head traumas occurring in contact sports like football or soccer — games in which considerable, deserved attention has focused on concussions and their long-term health risks — head injuries linked to horse riding are more likely to be one-time accidents that may be harder to avert, the researchers noted. They found the equestrian cases often were relatively mild, though 3 percent of them were fatal — and at far higher rates than what they tracked in water or roller sports.

Younger horse riders, in a separate study, fared better than adults. The federal database showed 1,444 traumatic brain injuries to young athletes due to contract sports, compared with 806 such cases from skateboarding or roller skating, and 427 equestrian incidents, ABC News reported.

Horse enthusiasts emphasize safety from the start with young recreational riders, who are just one segment in what Virginia experts say is an industry with a $1.2 billion economic impact in the state. Maryland officials have estimated the horse industry “could have a $1.5 billion annual impact by the end of 2020 and support more than 11,000 jobs.” It may be that older riders, due to extensive sporting competition on horseback, suffer more injuries than youngsters do. There are robust competitor calendars for horse shows and contests across Virginia and Maryland.

In my practice, I see not only the major harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, I also see how their lives can be upended by brain and spinal cord injuries. Although organized, big-time sports  organizations like the National Football League and the National Hockey League may have left lots to be desired in their efforts to protect athletes and to spread within their sports optimal head and neck safety rules and practices, it’s good to see that equestrians in many areas encourage protective gear and sound training. The US Polo Association is in the midst of determining standards for protective helmets it will require players to wear starting in 2019. Here’s a tally ho to safe and fun riding.

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