University of Calgary

Wherever you go cycling, protection is key — researchers

September 9, 2013

Trauma surgeons at Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary who have compared injuries between street cyclists and mountain bikers say both groups should consider adding chest protection to their safety gear.

Their research study, published in a recent edition of the Canadian Journal of Surgery, looks at incidence, risk factors and injury patterns over a 14-year period among 258 severely injured cyclists in southern Alberta.

“Trauma to the head is still the No. 1 injury in both cycling groups, which underscores the importance of wearing a good-quality, properly fitted helmet,” says Dr. Chad Ball, the senior author of the research paper.

“At the same time, almost half of the injuries we noted were either to the chest or abdomen, suggesting that greater physical protection in those areas could also help reduce or prevent serious injury.”

Many specialized bike shops now carry a variety of protective vests, often referred to as body armour, which provide a mix of padding and hard-shell coverage.

Researchers looked at the most severely injured cyclists from 1995-2009, as recorded in the Southern Alberta Trauma Database, which tracks trauma patients admitted to Foothills Medical Centre.

During that period, more than four times as many street cyclists (209) were severely injured as mountain cyclists (49). As well, 16 of 17 fatalities were street cyclists.

“Street cyclists were often injured after being struck by a motor vehicle, but we found mountain bikers fell from embankments, jumps or from other heights,” says Dr. Derek Roberts, lead author of the study, who is a Surgery and Clinician Investigator Program Resident, as well as a PhD candidate at the University of Calgary.

“That could be the reason why mountain cyclists experienced more spinal injuries than street cyclists.”

Brian Foster, a 59-year-old Calgary lawyer, can attest to the importance of wearing the right safety gear. He was mountain biking with his son at the Panorama ski resort in Invermere, B.C., last month when he lost control of his bike after a jump and somersaulted to the ground. He fractured ribs, punctured a lung and sustained a compression fracture to a disc in his spine.

“I was wearing the full chest protection and spinal protection and I’m certain it saved me from a much more serious injury,” Foster says.

“You don’t realize the velocity you pick up and with all the rocks and outcroppings around, the potential is there for serious harm.”

 Foster adds that when mountain bikers have accidents, they are a long way from expert medical help, making protective gear that much more critical. After his mishap, he endured a long and painful ambulance ride back to the Foothills Medical Centre.

Researchers only included cases that involved severe injuries to more than one area of the body. A cyclist whose only injury was a broken leg, for example, would not figure in the study.

At present, helmet use is inconsistently recorded in the trauma registry, making it impossible for researchers to say whether the number of head injuries is due to a lack of helmet use.

 According to the study, injury patterns common to both the street and mountain cyclists are: trauma to the head (67.4 per cent); extremities (38.4 per cent); chest (34.1 per cent); face (26 per cent) and abdomen (10.1 per cent). Mountain bikers incurred more spinal injuries
(65.3 per cent) compared to street cyclists (41.1 per cent).

 Other findings include:

  • The average age of injured mountain cyclists is 28.
  • The average age of injured street cyclists is 43.
  • 86.4 per cent of all cycling patients are male.
  • Most injuries occur in the summer months.
  • Mountain bikers are admitted to hospital more commonly on the weekends at 61.2 per cent versus 45 per cent for street cyclists.

‘Severe street and mountain bicycling injuries in adults: a comparison of the incidence, risk factors and injury patterns over 14 years’ was published in the June issue of the Canadian Journal of Surgery.