Helmet-wearing motorcycle riders are less likely to hurt their heads in accidents, but end up with more injuries to other parts of their bodies, suggests new research.
Researchers write in JAMA Surgery that the results may be due to helmeted riders being more likely to survive high-force crashes than people who don't wear helmets, and ultimately end up with more extensive injuries.
"The fact that injury patterns are different makes a lot of sense, because the helmets are going to help you survive," said Dr. Adil Haider, of the Center for Surgery and Public Health at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.
"A lot of people have all these torso injuries because their head is saved," said Haider, who wasn't involved in the new study.
While researchers knew helmets decreased injuries and death related to motorcycle trauma, they didn't know whether or how the protective head gear might affect injuries to other body parts.
The authors write that loosening restrictions on helmets in some U.S. states allowed them to study how wearing head protection may influence other injuries.
For the study, they used national data from 2007 to 2010 on almost 86,000 people with some sort of motorcycle-related trauma. The researchers paid particularly close attention to the number and extent of injuries to people's heads and necks, torsos, spines and extremities.
Overall, the researchers found helmeted motorcycle riders were about half as likely to end up with head injuries, compared to those who weren't wearing protection. Helmeted riders were also less likely to die.
Helmeted riders were more likely to have injuries to the chest and extremities than riders who weren't wearing helmets, however.
Other than saving the lives of riders during high-force accidents, another explanation for increased injuries to other body parts could be that helmeted riders feel more secure and end up driving at higher speeds, the researchers, led by Indiana University's Dr. Jeff Lastfogel, write.
There was no difference in the time people spent in a hospital regardless of whether they were helmeted.
Dr. David Ripley, who was not involved in the research, cautioned, though, that the study can't really say if people ended up going home after being in the hospital. Some may, for example, have been transferred to a long term care center.
"These people are still hospitalized, but they are not in the acute care hospital," said Ripley, who is medical director of brain injury medicine and rehabilitation at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.
He said that policymakers should consider the cost of additional care for people who don't wear helmets and likely end up with head injuries.
"From a public health perspective, policymakers should recognize the increased cost associated with these individuals and respond with the appropriate public policy," he said.
Additionally, Ripley said, he recommends as much protective gear as possible - including helmets.