Shake It Up
May 16, 2018 8:52 AM   Subscribe

I'm spending a day next month riding lots of scary roller coasters with a friend. Yay! However, I mentioned this to a different friend, who is far more risk averse than I am and said, "Oh, great, so you're going to spend a whole day getting brain damage." Ha ha, dude, good one! But then I decided to ask Dr. Google, who told me that yes, in fact, it is possible to get subdural hematomas, among other things, from riding roller coasters. Um.

A lot of the information I read online was a little dated, but some of it wasn't -- like from 2016. The information ranged from "Yeah, sure, there's a slight chance of brain damage, but you're actually more likely to suffer a traumatic brain injury from the car ride to the park" to "Are you insane? Don't ride roller coasters, you fucking idiot, unless you actually like to undergo brain surgery." One doctor assured us that it wasn't a big deal because subdural hematomas were really pretty easy to treat surgically -- a proposition that did not, oddly, make me feel better.

So, no bullshit now: Am I taking an insane risk here? I'm, shall we say, not young -- over 50, to be exact. (The friend who'll be going with me is a bit younger -- mid'ish or late-ish 40s.) But what can I say, I still love roller coasters. I generally have very low risk aversion, but I'd love to see some good information that will allow me to assess the risk properly, but as I said, the medical information on the web is all over the place.

This will be at Six Flags Great Adventure, if it matters -- home of the infamous Kingda Ka.
posted by holborne to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
How about this "our findings do not support the contention that current roller coaster rides produce high enough forces to mechanically deform and injure the brain." from the Journal of Neurotrauma. That said it's from 2002. Looking for more recent articles from peer reviewed journals, here is one from 2009. "There appears to be an extremely low risk of TBI due to the head motions induced by roller coaster rides." from the American Journal of Forensic Medical Pathology. Here's one from 2017 again from the Journal of Neurotrauma: "head motion and brain deformation during roller coaster rides are highly sensitive to individual subjects. Although our study suggests that roller coaster rides do not present an immediate risk of acute brain injury, their long-term effects require further longitudinal study." (very small sample though)
posted by jessamyn at 8:59 AM on May 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

on the plus side, they can dislodge kidney stones without surgery so, you know, upsides and downsides
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:02 AM on May 16, 2018 [19 favorites]

A quick poke at Google Scholar suggests that these cases are rare enough to warrant case study papers - they exist, but they're mostly in the literature as "look at this strange case I treated" rather than "the roller coaster is going to make you bleed out your ears."
posted by Making You Bored For Science at 9:32 AM on May 16, 2018 [7 favorites]

I find that what reassures me in such a situation is to overwhelm my panic center with numbers. What I mean is: I've recently gotten a little uneasy about flying; even though I have made several flights now in my life without incident, there's always a point about a week before I fly anywhere when I am suddenly starting to think that I'm going to be in a major plane crash. When that happens, I consider how many flights there are in the course of an average day, and compare that to the number of crashes I've even heard about in the course of a year, and I work out the percentage. Or, I'll find a table that compares the risk of dying in a plane crash to the risk of dying in a car crash, or from a snake bite, or...

for some reason, looking at the numbers gives my panic center something to hang on to and calm down. So maybe something like that - take a look at the number of people who ride roller coasters every day or every week, and compare that to the number of people who have roller-coaster related subural hematomas. Or, count up how many times you've ridden a roller coaster in your life and then compare that figure to the total number of subural hematomas you've had.

I don't know why numbers calm me down, but they do. Give it a shot.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:33 AM on May 16, 2018 [5 favorites]

Total anecdata, but I adore roller coasters, and one day several years ago I rode a crazy number of intense rides in one afternoon (had some elite fastpass of some sort and was riding the craziest rides over and over endlessly, including the fastest and tallest roller coaster in N. America), and I absolutely felt like I had a concussion at the end of the day. There is a tiny part of me that occasionally thinks back on that day and feels like my personality permanently changed a tiny smidge from that point on, but that line of thinking seems needlessly dire. At any rate: I feel like I did legit damage that day, even if it was just a very mild concussion (but it didn't really feel very mild at all at the time.) I would say, just don't ride the Kingda Ka like fifteen times in a few hours, and whatever else I was riding that day. I think I just pushed it way too far, personally.
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 10:12 AM on May 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

I rode a rollercoaster nine times in a row and was left with the worst headache of my life. Not sure if it was a concussion. A few years later, I rode a wooden coaster in the last car and got a concussion. I don't ride them anymore.
posted by xo at 10:18 AM on May 16, 2018

Here's some anecdata: one of my friends rode a roller coaster at age 32, got Alice in Wonderland syndrome immediately after, and needed brain surgery to fix it.

Here's some more anecdata: I've known thousands of people in my life, and that's the only person I know who's developed anything like that at any time following a roller coaster ride.

So I'm going with "head motion and brain deformation during roller coaster rides are highly sensitive to individual subjects."
posted by infinitewindow at 10:23 AM on May 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

I am fairly average risk -averse for physical danger. So this seems like something that is low enough risk to do once in a while, of the ubiquitous " blah blah car accident more likely blah blah" category, but after seeing this thread, I would absolutely not do it all day. Brains respond to cumulative injury. Though I not a brain surgeon, but merely the owner of my own head, I would feel that contemplating multiple rides in a row without the capacity for the brain to restore itself, or for the micro-amounts of swelling to go down before doing it again, would at best kinda ruin the thrill.
posted by velveeta underground at 10:52 AM on May 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have retinopathy of prematurity and was specifically told that roller coasters were out because the speed and bumpiness of the head movement could cause a retina detachment. I've still gone on smaller ones and felt no real risk. In fact I was told it was about the same risk of being in a car accident that jerks your head about. Apparently that can cause a retina detachment too.

All that to say, I have an actual diagnosed Thing, and I still wouldn't worry too much.
posted by aclevername at 11:57 AM on May 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

I’ve gotten HORRIBLE motion sickness from a roller coaster to the extent that I couldn’t really distinguish it from a concussion, and maybe it was! But I’m the only one I know personally who has ever really had a roller coaster-related health issue.
posted by stoneandstar at 3:09 PM on May 16, 2018

I don't typically ride coasters because I despise the feeling of falling, but I went to cedar point once and went on plenty of them (turns out focusing intently on the track ahead really helps!) and the only ill effect was my usual clumsiness causing me to twist my ankle on a set of steps toward the end of the day.

That said, if I were concerned about health risks, I'd stay away from large wooden coasters. They jolt you around a lot, unlike steel coasters where the forces come on a lot more gradually. It's less the overall force that messes up your brain and more sudden high acceleration. I seriously doubt it's enough to cause any significant brain swelling, but if there is a risk, that's where it would be. Steel coasters just don't have those short jolts that send parts of your body moving in random directions in a few milliseconds. Head banging is more violent, for reals.

If there were really a significant risk people would be seeing effects left and right. It's not as if they aren't a staple at basically every amusement park in the land.

One caveat, though, I hit my head a lot as a kid, often resulting in profuse bleeding, so I may have been rendered stupid early on in life or at least had the parts of my brain likely to be damaged by head injuries killed off. (I'm only half joking, I really did hit my head a lot, both mildly at least weekly and hard enough to raise concussion concerns several times a year for a good decade running before I became an indoors person)
posted by wierdo at 10:26 PM on May 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

Also anecdata, I'm afraid, but I visit 6 Flags Great America a couple of times per summer and am also a member of the 40+ coaster rider club. I worry more about whiplash than concussion, but regardless, I find that my day is much more enjoyable if I limit myself to the big steel coasters, since they jog you around less, and sit in the seats in the middle of the coaster, rather than the front or the back, where you get whipped around more.

From experience, I would strongly recommend avoiding the Dark Knight Coaster (it's at your 6 Flags and mine, too), which is an enclosed coaster and jerks you around a bunch.
posted by merriment at 5:22 AM on May 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

.. so, you know, upsides and downsides

I see what you did there.
posted by RhysPenbras at 6:31 AM on May 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

Jerk. The technical term I couldn't remember was jerk. Wooden coasters have a lot of jerk, steel ones don't. (Jerk is the rate of change of acceleration, which is what bangs you and your brain around)
posted by wierdo at 11:12 AM on May 17, 2018

I went on a lot of roller coasters as a child and teen. One summer (i was about 22) i met up with a high school friend and we went on one roller coaster and felt like crap afterwards. It was a coaster i had ridden a billion times, but i had not ridden any coasters in 3-4 years at that point.

I don't feel like i had an actual brain injury, more like pretty intense motion sickness, but I definitely feel like my aged body was a factor.
posted by WeekendJen at 12:19 PM on May 17, 2018

Thanks, you guys! What I think I'm going to do is go but make sure to space everything out (not the best turn of phrase here, but you know what I mean) so that I'm not riding Kingda Ka or what have you three times in quick succession. Also if I get a headache at all, that's the end of it. I'll report back to tell everyone whether I survived the experience with brain intact.
posted by holborne at 9:59 AM on May 21, 2018

I know you’re all enthralled by this saga, but just an update: my friend and I went to Six Flags today, rode a bunch of coasters, and had a great time. No head injuries — his back got banged up a bit on El Toro, but no other damage.
posted by holborne at 8:12 PM on June 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

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