Scott M. Levin, MD., FAAOS - Board Certified Orthopaedic Surgeon
Carmel, NY, June 2013 - There's something about summer that makes the idea of hopping on a bike and heading for a rugged trail nearly irresistible. Three decades after the sport began with only a handful of enthusiasts, mountain biking has surged in popularity. The non-profit Outdoor Foundation estimates that nearly 7.1 million people now participate in this adrenaline-pumping outdoor activity. But each trail's bumps, peaks and vertical drops also bring the potential for mountain biking injury. "Recreational mountain bikers - who don't compete in the sport and do it just for fun - may forget this exciting pastime comes with potential risks," says Dr. Scott Levin. "But taking simple protective measures can keep mountain bikers safe on the trail for a long time to come."
Improved mountain biking equipment is helping
This crucial awareness, along with numerous improvements to mountain bike design such as better braking and suspension systems, can be credited with the overall drop in mountain biking injuries over the past two decades. Data released in 2011 from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System found that the number of mountain bike-related injuries in the U.S. dropped 56 percent since the mid-1990s, from 23,000 in 1995 to just over 10,000 in 2007. "Boys and men were more likely to suffer these injuries, but girls and women were more prone to being injured seriously enough to require hospitalization," says Dr. Levin. "And notably, riders between the ages of 14 and 19 sustained twice as many traumatic brain injuries as riders of all other ages. So, despite the overall injury rate reduction, it's clear that riders of both genders and all ages still need to practice proven safety measures while mountain biking."
Common mountain biking injuries
Frequent mountain biking injuries can be divided into two types: traumatic injuries - typically from falling or being thrown from the bike - and overuse injuries. The most common traumatic injuries include fractures, soft tissue injuries, and cuts and scrapes, while the most frequently injured parts of the body are the arms, legs, collarbone and shoulder. Less commonplace but perhaps scarier, some of the most severe traumatic injuries involve the head, spine, neck and face, with a 2010 study indicating surgery was required for about two-thirds of mountain bikers with spine injuries.
Fortunately, overuse injuries tend to be less debilitating. Muscle cramps or pain in the lower back, knees, neck, wrists or hands - while uncomfortable - can often be prevented or alleviated with minor adjustments in fitness level or riding stance. "The mere act of staying well-hydrated - which is recommended while participating in any sport - is especially important while mountain biking," Dr. Levin says. "You may not notice during the exhilaration of zooming down hills or making jumps that your body is rapidly losing fluids, which can trigger muscle cramps."
Tips for preventing injuries on the trail
Other ways to avoid overuse injuries include strengthening the back and lower abdomen with conditioning activities such as Pilates - which builds "core" muscles - along with raising or lowering the bike seat (which can help knee pain) or relaxing your grip on your handlebars (for wrist or hand pain). Of course, preventing or minimizing severe mountain biking injuries is even more critical, but Dr. Levin says this usually requires focusing on two other areas: your equipment and the trail itself.
Since falling accounts for the vast majority of traumatic trail biking injuries, equipment that cushions the body in this event is indispensable. The right gear includes:
- Helmet: Worn at all times and replaced after an accident, choose a helmet with an ASNI- or Snell-approved sticker.
- Safety glasses: A tinted pair will keep the sun as well as trail debris out of your eyes.
- Gloves: A pair made specifically for biking can improve grip, prevent blisters and protect your hands in a fall.
- Elbow/knee pads: A good pair won't hinder flexibility but will protect joints in a fall.
- "Read" the trail: Scan the terrain that's both far ahead and right below the wheels to prepare for the terrain's coming challenges.
- Ride in a group and stay together.
- Try new tricks or jumps cautiously.
"Mountain biking is a thrilling sport, but injuries don't need to be part of the equation if riders do their utmost to prepare," Dr. Levin says. "Perhaps the best preparation is staying strong and flexible, which can both prevent injuries and help riders walk away with fewer problems from falls or crashes if they do occur."
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