How To Prevent Head Injury When Sailing

How To Prevent Head Injury When Sailing | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Bennett D. Richardson, PT, DPT, CSCS

June 15, 2022

General injury prevention during sailing is critical for a long career, but preventing head injuries is of the utmost importance to sailors.

Head injuries are typically the result of inexperience, rough sailing conditions, bad luck, or a combination of these elements. However, preparation and the use of proper headgear are the perfect antidote to said issues. It’s important to protect your head at all costs, you only get one!

Even though injuries are relatively rare in sailing, a head injury can affect the rest of your life and may result in a concussion, traumatic brain injury, coma or even death. The U.S. Sailing Sports Medicine Committee states that, “Similar to modern American football and other sports at risk for impact to the head, this topic has been a growing concern for sailing that requires an educated approach”. Therefore, we will take an educated approach in this blog post and review the different factors that can lead to a head injury while sailing, what specific types of conditions may result from a head injury, and how to prevent these head injuries in the first place.

This article was written by Bennett Richardson, an orthopedic physical therapist who has treated many concussions, traumatic brain injuries and general head injuries over the years. All of the information provided will be cited if it comes from a specific source. If a claim is not cited, assume it is my personal opinion based on my clinical experience. However, the information presented is no substitute for a detailed evaluation by a licensed healthcare practitioner. Always consult with your doctor before making any changes in your health routine and before following any health advice found online.


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What are Some Factors that can Lead to a Head Injury While Sailing?

Unfortunately, some injuries are simply unavoidable. You could take every proper precaution and have tons of experience in sailing, but sometimes, you just can’t control for fate. However, you can minimize the chance of a head injury by understanding the factors that may lead to them and taking the proper steps to prepare.

One such factor that can lead to a head injury is inexperience. Novice sailors are at increased risk for head injury, simply due to the fact that they are beginners. They don’t necessarily know what to plan for or how to respond when something unexpected happens. They may be distracted by a task they need to complete and get smacked in the head by the boom in the meantime. Or, they may be rushing to address something, and not see the misplaced rope that they trip over, causing them to hit their head on the deck of the ship. The old adage: “you don’t know what you don’t know,” is especially appropriate with these folks.

Another issue that plagues experienced and novice sailors alike, is that of rough water conditions. When on a particularly bumpy sailing trip, you need to be constantly moving and adjusting. This can result in slips and falls where you land on your head. In these scenarios, the main concern is whether you suffered a simple bump on the head, a concussion, or a traumatic brain injury. Let’s examine these three head injury types in greater detail, as they require expert attention and treatment:

  • Simple Head Impacts. These are the types of injuries that are of little concern. They hurt, certainly, but they leave no discernable signs of concussion or TBI (traumatic brain injury). There may be a face laceration or a bump from the impact, but nothing that a little time and maybe some first aid won’t heal. So, once the bruise and soreness has resolved, there’s no need to think about the injury much further.
  • Concussions. Formerly thought of as “bell ringers,” concussions are now widely understood to be an extremely serious condition that requires medical supervision and intervention. Without being properly addressed, concussions can have long term consequences such as early onset dementia, mood swings, and other cognitive issues. Many medical professionals such as neurologists and physical therapists even specialize in concussions these days, as the research is ever-evolving.
  • Traumatic Brain Injuries. TBIs are emergency, life threatening head injuries. You can assume that you are correct if you suspect that someone suffered a TBI. They result from extremely high impact to the head. A TBI might occur during a sailing expedition from falling overboard or getting hit with excessively hard force by the swinging boom. TBIs are classified by a complex system, known as the Ranchos Scale, but it goes without saying that these injuries require immediate medical attention once sustained. The sooner you can get an individual who suffered a TBI to the hospital, the better.

For all intents and purposes in this article, and for your information, concussions and TBIs are the same thing. Both should be prevented where possible addressed as quickly as possible to limit long term consequences.

Another potential source of head injuries is just plain bad luck. You may have the best crew, the best boat, the best conditions, and you could still end up suffering a head injury. Such is life! But these instances of bad luck can be mitigated to a high degree by proper preparation and use of precautions. The famous seneca quote comes to mind: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” By that definition, it stands to reason that he’s talking about “good” luck. So prepare yourself for every possibility and make your own “good” luck!

What Specifically can Reduce the Risk of Head Injury While Sailing?

Preparation is key. Before any sailing expedition, you should take ample time to prepare your boat. Is there anything that you can trip over? If you are a novice, do you have someone with you who will help guide you and keep you from smacking your head on the boom? If you are experienced, is there anything or anyone new on your boat that may cause some unanticipated issues? Addressing all of these issues before they happen is the best way to prevent injury. If there’s one universal truth about injuries, it’s that the easiest injury to treat is the one that was prevented.

Additionally, proper headgear is essential in protecting yourself from head injury while sailing. While helmets are not always considered mandatory pieces of equipment for sailing, it is my own personal opinion as someone who has rehabilitated many people who have suffered concussions and TBIs, that you should strongly consider the use of a helmet when sailing.

Before I present my case for wearing a helmet, I will acknowledge that there is research to indicate that helmets do not necessarily  prevent concussions. There are even claims made that helmets can increase the size of the target i.e. your head, making it easier for you to sustain a head injury. Additionally, there are valid points that can be made about an improperly sized helmet being more of a hindrance than a protection during a high-risk sport or activity.

I would even agree that an inappropriately sized helmet could potentially cause more harm than not wearing a helmet, in situations that require significant head mobility and clear vision.

However, I do not believe those statements or studies intend to suggest that helmets should not be considered in sports where head injury is likely. For example, there is well documented evidence that helmets protect against skull fractures and lacerations of the head, even if the evidence for concussion prevention isn’t compelling yet.

When it comes to sailing specifically, I believe that helmets are especially critical due to the nature of the sport. If an injury occurs on a sailing trip, help may be hours or even days away. With a simple injury, this is probably inconsequential. You’ll be stocked with first aid supplies and able to address small injuries until you can get help. But with TBIs and concussions, you may not be so lucky. As I’ve said, these injuries are incredibly complex and require evaluation and treatment by a competent medical practitioner.

There’s no doubt that helmet designs need to be improved upon, and they will be over time. There are numerous efforts underway to design helmets that counteract the mechanism of concussion, such as helmets to limit rotational acceleration and brain tissue effect. For an in-depth look at new research and theories on better headgear for concussion protection, check out this study from 2020. But right now, the best defense we have against head injuries (besides preventing the head injury in the first place) are helmets, and I implore everyone to use them when in a situation where head injury is likely, such as sailing. Just make sure that the helmet is sized correctly for you and that you have selected the appropriate helmet for visibility, movement and protection. This website provides a starting point in selecting a proper helmet for sailing.

How To Prevent Head Injury When Sailing
Bennett D. Richardson, PT, DPT, CSCS

Bennett D. Richardson, PT, DPT, CSCS

Bennett is a physical therapist in the Pittsburgh, PA region who specializes in the areas of orthopedics, ergonomics, and weight loss. Bennett graduated from Slippery Rock University’s DPT program in 2017. He also obtained his BS from SRU in 2014 in Exercise Science with a Gerontology minor. In his work, Bennett has had the unique opportunity to rehabilitate many novice and experienced sailors. The advice he provides is always research-based.

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