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Heads up

Even though your head is covered by a hard, natural helmet, blows to the head, including concussions and skull fractures, cause about 1.1 million emergency room visits and 50,000 deaths every year. Learning how to recognize a serious head injury could make the difference in saving someone’s life. But it’s also important to learn how to protect your head to avoid an injury in the first place.

Cushioning the blow

Common causes of head injury include traffic accidents, accidents on the job or at home, falls, physical assaults and sports injuries. In fact, according to the Brain Injury Association, 82,000 people suffer brain injuries every year just from playing sports. Many of these sports injuries might have been prevented by simply wearing the proper helmet. Helmets cushion the blow of a fall or other impact to the head.

Bicycling, in-line skating, skiing, snowboarding, horseback riding, playing team sports—all require helmets to protect your head. In addition, take these preventive steps to help you and your family avoid head injuries:

  • Always wear your seat belt.
  • Don’t drink alcohol when driving a motor vehicle or participating in sports.
  • Don’t let children ride in shopping carts.
  • Keep your home safe from accidental falls by clearing floors of clutter, securing throw rugs, using skid-proof mats in the bathtub, securing stairway handrails and keeping walkways well lit.
  • Exercise regularly to maintain balance and strength.
  • Keep firearms unloaded and locked away out of sight.

When to get medical help

The same force that causes a concussion, a relatively minor injury, may also cause swelling or tearing of a blood vessel or an artery in the brain. If not treated by a doctor, those injuries can have serious consequences.

The symptoms of a serious head injury may show up right away or may develop slowly over several hours, so it’s important to learn what to look for and what to do after someone is hurt. Immediately call an ambulance if the injured person suffers from any of these symptoms:

  • unconsciousness
  • abnormal breathing
  • bleeding from the nose, ears or mouth
  • an inability to speak or see properly
  • vomiting
  • seizures or loss of bladder or bowel control
  • loss of memory regarding the injury
  • worsening headaches

Don’t ever send someone who has suffered a head injury home alone since symptoms may still develop. Stay with the injured party. Apply an ice pack to the affected area. Be on the lookout for any difference in mental function. If there’s a major change, then go to the hospital for an exam.

How to buy a helmet

When buying a helmet, getting the right kind and fit is key. Try on several before purchasing. Make sure the chin strap sits under your chin snugly and the “V” in the straps meets under your ears. Look for a manufacturer’s sticker citing the Consumer Product Safety Commission standard.

Since all helmets are not created alike, choose a head covering designed specially for your sport, or you may not be protected. Skateboarding helmets, for example, are made to withstand multiple blows, but bicycle helmets are not.