As ride thrills climb, so do head injuries

Published: Saturday, July 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, July 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.


Safety tips

  • Obey posted height requirements.
  • Read the signs and if you have a listed medical concern, pass on the ride.
  • While in line, visually check the ride. Watch others as they get off.
  • Use the safety restraints and follow the rules.

  • Today's roller coasters and other thrill rides are taller, faster and scarier than ever before.
    Some top speeds of 100 mph or create G forces six times stronger than gravity.
    And research cited in the Annals of Emergency Medicine shows that the number of related head and neck injuries are also on the rise.
    In light of such studies, and the death earlier this week of a 12-year-old boy on the Disney-MGM Rock 'n' Roller Coaster in Orlando, are amusement park rides safe for kids and adults?
    Does playing it safe mean limiting thrill-riding to a turn on the merry-go-round?
    Not if you temper your enthusiasm with some good common sense, according to Dr. Arno Zaritsky, chief of pediatric critical care at Shands at the University of Florida.
    Zaritsky said he's not a particular fan of high-speed thrill rides, "but my kids love 'em and it is hard to keep them off."
    The Kentucky youngster who collapsed after riding a Disney coaster Thursday had a congenital heart defect and did not suffer any injury on the ride itself, according to the results of an autopsy done Friday.
    Zaritsky notes that the Consumer Product Safety Commission has compiled data on roller coaster injuries.
    "There appears to be an increasing rate of reports, but injuries are still relatively uncommon," the emergency room physician said.
    The rate of injury significant enough to bring someone into a hospital emergency department is estimated at 1 in 124,000 rides on a roller coaster. The frequency of a child or adult needing to be hospitalized after being on a roller coaster is estimated at 1 in 15 million rides.
    "You read about the dramatic episodes, but these are still very uncommon occurrences," Zaritsky said.
    Zaritsky suggests avoiding extreme coasters or thrill rides if you have a history of heart disease, high blood pressure or stroke, or if you are taking blood-thinning medications.
    Get to an emergency room if you experience any of these after a ride: severe headache, back pain, neck pain or stiffness, numbness or tingling in the extremities, confusion or slurred speech.
    If you feel your heart racing fast, you might want to see a doctor, as it can be an indicator of unrecognized heart disease.
    "The surge of stress hormones generated by the ride may cause sudden cardiac arrest," Zaritsky warned. "Unfortunately it is difficult for any parent to know if their child is affected, because he or she is completely without symptoms prior to the event."
    There have been a number of reports of injuries involving the blood vessels of the brain - bleeding or tears as a result of the head being snapped around on the ride. Those individuals may complain of a sudden, violent headache after getting off the ride.
    Most of those cases have been in adults rather than children, according to Zaritsky.
    The doctor has a simple prescription for those who head off to theme parks looking for the thrill of a lifetime.
    Before you climb aboard any ride, take some simple steps to protect yourself.
    That way, the worst thing likely to happen is you'll lose your lunch.
    Diane Chun can be reached at 374-5041 or

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