- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 25, 2003

WASHINGTON, Feb. 25 (UPI) — Roller coasters appear safe for healthy people but the amusement park rides could be dangerous for individuals suffering from certain conditions such as neck injuries or heart problems, a panel of experts concluded in a report released Tuesday.

"The overwhelming majority of riders will suffer no ill effects," panel chair Dr. Gregory O'Shanick, who serves as medical director of the Center for Neurorehabilitation Services in Midlothian, Va., said at a news briefing.

However, O'Shanick added, "there is evidence that roller coaster rides pose a health risk to some people some of the time."

Such individuals include pregnant women, persons with heart conditions, epilepsy, back or neck injury or prior orthopedic surgery.

The amusement park industry already warns people with these conditions not to ride, however, so the risk of injury is reduced, said O'Shanick, who is medical director to the Brain Injury Association, the organization that convened the panel.

The report concluded accelerations experienced by roller coaster riders are far below levels known to induce injury. The highest acceleration levels for roller coasters are equivalent to 6 g's — or six times the normal force of gravity — for one second.

But a person would not black out until 5.5 g's had been maintained for at least five seconds. Other research suggests serious brain injury does not occur until 35 g's.

The seven-member panel, which included neurologists, brain injury researchers and a former engineer for the amusement park chain, Six Flags, reviewed reports collected over the past 38 years of 57 people who suffered brain injuries — including six deaths — while riding roller coasters.

The Brain Injury Association convened the panel at the request of several members of Congress.

"The work of this panel helps to put to rest the fear of brain injury from riding roller coasters," said Allan Bergman, president and CEO of the association.

However, panel member Michael Freeman, a trauma epidemiologist at the Oregon Health Science University's school of medicine in Portland, pointed out although the risks of injury are small, the rides cannot yet be considered entirely risk-free.

"It is clear that roller coasters are … safe for most of the people most of the time," Freeman said. "But it is equally clear that we do not have enough evidence to conclude that it is impossible for a seemingly healthy individual to sustain a life-altering brain injury from a roller coaster ride. In fact, there is convincing evidence to the contrary."

The panel recommended that Congress mandate establishment of a Federal Amusement Park Trauma Registry to collect information about injuries on amusement park rides. This would enable researchers to determine if roller coasters do indeed pose a brain injury risk and the types of conditions that place people most at risk, Freeman said, noting 10,000 injuries — in addition to the small number of brain injuries — occur every year in riders.

The amusement park industry applauded the panel's conclusions. Their report "corroborates other studies that have been done" that found no health risks from roller coasters, Clark Robinson, president of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions in Alexandria, Va., told UPI.

Robinson said the industry wouldn't be supportive of establishing a federal registry for collecting information on injuries as proposed by the panel. That data are already collected at the state level so there is no reason to establish a national central database, he said.

All six of the deaths the panel reviewed, and a majority of the other brain injuries, were due to problems with blood vessels in the brain, said panel member David Meany, a bioengineer at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, who studies injury and repair of the central nervous system.

Abnormalities or malformations in blood vessels could be considered a separate risk factor, Meany said, but he noted that "estimating the relative risk for people with such pre-existing conditions would likely be difficult, since vascular abnormalities alone can lead to significant neurovascular injuries during even normal, daily activities."

The panel also recommended riders use common sense to reduce their chances of injury.

"If your neck hurts, you have been diagnosed with a medical or neurological illness, have had recent surgery or if there has been an abrupt change in your physical status or any other unusual or unexplained symptoms, skip the ride," O'Shanick said.

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