A prestigious medical research award from George Washington University was given to a student who published a paper this year looking at the nature of injuries sustained in the Whistler Mountain Bike Park.
Zachary Ashwell received the 2012 Doris Deford Speck and George Speck, M.D. Endowed Prize Award and had his research paper published in an issue of Wilderness and Environmental Medicine this spring.
Mary Pat McKay, an emergency medicine doctor at the university, was one of three others involved in research with Ashwell and designing the concept for the study.
McKay said lift-assisted downhill mountain biking is a relatively new and emphasizes the riskier parts of the sport by mechanically transporting bikers up the hill first.
“When it comes to injury, speed matters, so the time when people are going to be injured in mountain biking is on the down slope,” she said. “It emphasizes the riskier portions of the (mountain biking) experience.”
Ashwell spent the summer of 2009 in Whistler collecting data at the health care centre from the 898 visits by patients from Whistler Blackcomb’s bike park.
The Question contacted the Whistler Blackcomb for comment on the study and its findings, however a spokesperson was unavailable before press deadline.
McKay said there were two results from the research that “we somewhat expected but didn’t totally anticipate.”
The first was an emphasis on upper extremity injuries. The research identified 1,759 specific injury diagnoses, including 420 fractures in 328 patients or 42.5 per cent of those who went to the clinic. Upper extremity fractures to the shoulder, humerus, elbow, forearm, wrist or hands and fingers, predominated at 75.4 per cent.
The other significant statistic, said McKay, is the number of people with head injuries when all bikers on the mountain are required by Whistler Blackcomb to wear a helmet.
Of the total injuries recorded, 11.2 per cent had a traumatic brain injury and 8.5 per cent were transferred to a higher level of care: seven by helicopter, 62 by ambulance and five in their own vehicles.
McKay said that information led them to feel continued research into appropriate safety equipment and risk avoidance measures is needed – for both the upper extremities and the head.
“It is probably the case that the optimal helmet for someone going down a mountain may be different than somebody riding their bike to work,” she said. “Maybe we need helmets that do a better job of protecting people when 11 per cent end up with a concussion or neurological symptom.”
Research and development into equipment for the upper extremities, she added, should also take into account mountain bikers need to be flexible and able to navigate their bike at the same time.
While the study was able to look at the kinds of injuries it was unable to access information on where they occur or if there are particular locations along the mountain bike trails that have more injuries occur than others.
McKay said bike parks may be able to do that with their own data but what was interesting is out of all the injuries there was only one incidence of a crash between two bikers.
The month of August and weekends saw the highest use of the mountain bike park and more than 30 per cent of bikers were from outside of Canada. McKay said sometimes they had to use an atlas to find home countries.
“Travelling from obscure places to Whistler for at least one day of lift-accessed mountain biking speaks to what a draw (the resort) is,” she said.
Those injured were generally in their mid- to late 20s, which may mirror general ridership in the sport, but 86 per cent of the cases at the clinic were male.
McKay said the study failed to capture all injuries as the most serious would be transferred to a higher level of care than the local clinic directly from the bike park and those with minor injuries may not have attended for medical care at all.
“The take-home point is enjoy your sports but do it a safely as possible.”