Learn How to Assess Head Injuries after a Climbing Accident

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One of the worst climbing accidents is falling and hitting your head against the rock or being hit on your head by a falling projectile like a chunk of rock or ice or a piece of equipment. If you are not wearing a climbing helmet, there is a large chance that you will suffer a traumatic brain injury (TBI). A helmet, of course, is not foolproof since you can also sustain a TBI or other head injury in a climbing accident.

More climbing fatalities, as evidence by long-term statistics in North American Accidents in Mountaineering, occur as a result of head injuries.

Every Climbing Accident can be Life Threatening

Every time we rope up and go climbing, the potential exists that bad things can happen. Bad stuff can happen in an instant on the rock. A hold can break and we fall out-of-control to a crash landing. A hunk of rock falls off from above and strikes our body. Every climbing incident has the potential to be a life-threatening accident with a head injury. Rock, we always have to remember is unforgiving; it doesn't yield. As climbers, the best thing we can do to protect our delicate heads is to always wear a climbing helmet.

Learn How to Assess Head Injuries

As climbers, we also need to learn how to assess head injuries because sometimes help, rescue, and even cell phone service might be a long distance and time away. When you go out rock climbing or mountaineering, you need to know the signs of a head injury.

These include short-term memory loss, dilated eyes and uneven pupils, verbal and mental confusion, and nausea.

Head Injury at Red Rock Canyon

Last September I was at Red Rock Canyon climbing area in Colorado Springs with Brian Shelton, lead guide for Front Range Climbing Company. We had just finished a pitch when we heard a cry from across the canyon and then screaming. We hustled over and found a dazed and confused man sitting at the base of the Sayers Wall. He had just taking a 20-foot leader fall and landed upside down with the back of his head impacting the sandstone face. A ring of glistening blood on the rock indicated the point of impact. He was not wearing a climbing helmet.

Call 911 if Necessary

As the climber sat there, we evaluated him. He couldn't remember his name or what he was doing; the pupils of his eyes were uneven; and he seemed confused. We called 911 and the paramedics took him to the hospital with a traumatic brain injury. He was released the next day after being kept for observation overnight at the hospital. He was lucky. But the long streak of blood where he hit was still on the rock a month later.

How Do You Assess Head Injuries?

If you are climbing with your buddy and he takes a leader fall and bonks his head, what do you do? How do you assess his injuries and decide whether to treat his symptoms or get help right away? It is difficult to sometimes decide what to do because many head injuries, especially those occurring to someone wearing a climbing helmet, are closed and not obvious.

First Evaluate the Victim's Head

The first thing is to do after the accident is to look at your climbing partner's head. Make sure that he hasn't sustained any other upper body or neck injuries and then remove his helmet if he is wearing one. There are basically three types of head injuries to assess-skull lacerations, skull fractures, and traumatic brain injuries.

Assess the Victim and do CPR if Necessary

Begin your assessment by doing a survey of the patient. Look for life-threatening conditions, including blocked airway and bleeding. Skull lacerations tend to bleed a lot so don't be alarmed by blood. Now you can begin to manage the injuries. Talk to the victim and check if they are breathing and have a pulse. If he are not breathing or is unconscious, begin CPR to resuscitate him. If he is unconscious, make sure his airway is unobstructed and that his tongue, broken teeth, or vomit hasn't blocked the airway. If he is unconscious, he has possibly injured his spinal cord and cervical spine too. A common cause of death from a head injury at the scene of the accident is the lack of oxygen to the brain. Know how to do mouth-to-mouth rescue breathing to save a life.
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