Personal Injury

Can roller coasters cause traumatic brain injuries?

Traumatic brain injuries (TBI) from the G-forces experienced while riding roller coasters are relatively rare, according to a researcher at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. But riders of such amusement park rides should use care when riding them.

Roller coasters strap riders in for a series of jerky, up-and-down and side-to-side movements that can jostle the brain. Many coaster-goers complain of headaches after riding and some head injuries such as hematomas, or bleeding on the brain, have been linked back to roller coaster rides hours and even days prior to the injury.

Rightfully so, case reports of TBI while riding roller coasters has received substantial attention and have led many medical professionals to suggest that the high gravitational forces, or G-forces, induced by coasters pose a significant risk of TBI. But Bryan Pfister, PhD, says those concerns may be overstated.

Pfister compared three-dimensional head motions during three different roller coaster rides, as well as other potentially damaging situations such as a pillow fight and car crashes. Data showed that car crashes led to the largest head injury risk, far more than experienced while riding a roller coaster.

“Unfortunately, many professionals have incorrectly used G-force measurements to dramatize the risk of head injury on a roller coaster ride. Indeed, their misinterpretation would also conclude that it is too dangerous to drive a car. While the exposure to G-forces on roller coasters appears high, it is not more that what you would experience in many everyday activities,” he says.

While Pfister’s study may sound promising to amusement park operators, the truth is there is still a risk for TBI when riding roller coasters even if that risk may be lower than expected.

“What it really means is, if it scares you, don’t do it. You have to be careful,” Stephen Silverstein, MD, director of Thomas Jefferson University’s Headache Center, in Philadelphia, tells WebMD. “If you start to get a headache during one of these rides, you should get medical attention. It can come from two ways, from damage to your neck, like whiplash, or it can come from something more serious, like (subdural hematoma). It can come immediately (during the ride), or there can be a delay. It takes time sometimes for the blood to build up.”