Airbag technology makes downhill skiiers safer

Downhill ski racers practice their craft by gliding down the side of a mountain at speeds in excess of 80 miles per hour. The slightest mistake at those speeds can end in tragedy. New technological innovations may avoid life-threatening injuries.

On Dec. 19, Olympic champion, Mathias Mayer, was the beneficiary of a technological breakthrough that has gradually become more accepted in the sport of ski racing. A protective vest that inflates in a similar way to an automobile airbag can now provide necessary protection in a potential crash.

The airbag system is one of two that are currently approved for competitive use. The protective vest will inflate when the struggling athlete reaches an angle and vector that can only result in a fall. These calculations are based on data input from the vest and appropriate algorithms.

The inflated vest softens the impact to the chest and supports the neck. Approximately 40 people die from ski and snowboard-related accidents each year. Many of these are brain injuries.

Helmet technology has evolved to the current level where a helmet is lightweight while providing maximum protection. Typically, these injuries occur at high velocity and involve skull fracture and hemorrhage within the brain.

Neck injuries that result from sudden extension of the cervical spine similar to whiplash in a high-speed automobile accident can cause fracture of the cervical spine and potential paralysis.

Another less common neck injury is the result of tearing of the vertebral arteries leading to the brain and causing a massive stroke. This is believed to be the injury that may have caused the death of freestyle skier Sarah Burke.

More common injuries to the lower extremities have been diminished thanks to improved ski boot design and quick release bindings.

As winter sports become more extreme, protective equipment design must also improve.

Dr. Alessi is a neurologist in Norwich and serves as an on-air contributor for ESPN. He is director of UConn NeuroSport and can be reached at

More details emerging on concussions

Over the past week, two events have highlighted the growing concern among athletes, fans and parents about concussions in the NFL.

Case Keenum, quarterback for the St. Louis Rams, suffered a head injury when his head struck the ground after being tackled. He could only get up with the assistance of another player. He staggered and was assisted to the sideline. After what appeared to be a cursory examination, to the astonishment of fans and viewers, he was allowed to return to the game.

Despite the efforts of the NFL and the NFLPA to impart safeguards, these protocols were circumvented. After the initial symptoms clear, athletes will often do anything to return to the game and in some cases, to their own detriment, they are able to deceive the medical professionals involved.

Frank Gifford was an icon in the NFL. Not only was he an outstanding player, but he later went on to become an accomplished and highly respected football commentator. He played in an era where head injuries were an accepted part of the game.

After passing away earlier this year at the age of 84, Gifford’s family generously donated his brain for scientific study. This week it was revealed that his brain had changes consistent with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).

CTE is a condition diagnosed on post-mortem examination where an abnormal deposition of tau protein is found in certain areas of the brain. It is typically found in athletes who participate in sports where head trauma is common. Clinical symptoms of slowed movements, dementia and behavioral abnormalities can be found in some of these patients.

 Unfortunately, some athletes who believe they may have CTE become desperate and resign themselves to their despair and in some cases commit suicide. Gifford obviously made a different choice and did not let his condition define him.

Both of these events emphasize how much work still needs to be done in the field of sports concussions.

Dr. Alessi is a neurologist in Norwich and serves as an on-air contributor for ESPN. He is director of UConn NeuroSport and can be reached at