Whether you are taking a family vacation to a popular amusement park or spending the day at a local fairground, you’re hoping to make memories and have fun. The last thing you want to happen is to leave the park in pain or injured, especially when it was preventable. Certain rides, like roller coasters, can leave you vulnerable to back and neck injuries if you do not take the proper precautions to protect yourself. When you’re preparing for a trip, take some time to think about what you may be at risk for and how you can prevent these injuries to ensure you have a fun-filled day.
How Roller Coasters Can Cause Injuries
Every year, amusement park rides like roller coasters cause thousands of injuries, ranging from small bruises to serious issues like broken bones. In rare cases, they may even cause death. This may sound impossible when you think of simple rides, but when you consider that the fastest roller coasters come in at over 120 miles per hour, it makes sense that they can be dangerous. The pressure, movement, and force these speeds place on your body can cause serious injuries if you don’t follow proper procedures or are at risk of injury to begin with. There are a few specific ways a roller coaster can impact your body negatively.
Strain on Your Neck
If you think about the way a restraint works on a roller coaster, it almost always focuses on your torso. The seat belt or bar does not usually account for your legs, head, or arms, allowing them to move freely. Your legs and arms are only responsible for holding up your feet and hands, but your neck has to hold up your head, which on average can weigh 10 to 11 pounds.
The movement of a roller coaster causes your body, including the head, to move back and forth in reaction to the motion. In turn, your neck muscles must quickly adjust and compensate for the sudden movements in order to keep your head steady and prevent injury to the spine or issues like whiplash. Even for the short period of time a ride takes, this can cause additional strain to the neck as the muscles work much harder than they would in a normal scenario.
Bending Forward and Backward
When the spine moves too far in either direction, it can cause issues. Forward flexion, when the spine is bent forward and rotated or twisted during sudden turns, can increase backside pressure on your discs where the spinal canal is. This can cause pain, especially in those with existing disc problems or even disc herniation.
In contrast, the extension of the spine when it is bent backward puts excess pressure on the spinal joints, which may become inflamed or irritated. If you’ve previously injured your back, this can revert you back to square one.
Aggravating Existing Conditions
You may notice some roller coasters say not to ride if you have existing back problems. This is because the movement can worsen existing injuries or even create new ones. For example, if you are suffering from arthritis, the extension of your spine on a roller coaster can worsen the condition of your joints and cause pain.
Common Spinal Injuries From Amusement Park Rides
Because of the numerous factors that can cause stress on the spine, roller coasters and other amusement park rides are also associated with a range of injuries. While certain issues, like a mechanical failure, can cause injuries outside of the norm, riding a functional roller coaster is most likely to cause these particular issues.
Lower Back Pain
One possible effect of the extreme force placed on your body during the sudden movements of a roller coaster is gravitational strain, which is placed most heavily onto your lower back. This is the primary reason that amusement parks recommend those with existing back and neck problems to avoid roller coasters, as the strain can worsen any condition. The lower back is one of the most commonly injured areas of the back and is where problems like herniated discs are most likely to occur.
The movement of your head during a roller coaster ride is the most common reason for neck injuries at an amusement park. In fact, the jerking motion of your head can cause neck injuries that range from minor to severe. You may associate whiplash with car accidents, but this is the same thing that can happen on a roller coaster, with the latter being potentially worse as it is for a prolonged period.
In whiplash, the soft tissues of the neck are sprained or strained when the head is extended beyond its normal range of motion. In addition to neck pain and stiffness, this can cause dizziness and headaches that you may notice days after you leave the amusement park. These symptoms should always be treated seriously, as whiplash can become chronic if not properly addressed.
The gel-like discs between each of your vertebrae serve to absorb shock and prevent the bone from rubbing together. But in certain instances, the gel in these discs can become displaced, moving outside of its shell and into the surrounding areas where nerves sit. This places pressure on the nerves and causes pain. For many people, this herniation of the disc results from wear and tear associated with age, but it can also be caused by a sudden injury.
If the force of a roller coaster presses you into a seat or causes your spine to jerk, the body is not able to adjust to these sudden changes, and a herniated disc is a common result. For those who have previously had a herniated disc, they are likely to reappear, causing the same pain as they did before. If you have this kind of problem, better find treatment for your herniated disc first before going on extreme amusement park rides.
Protecting Your Spine at the Amusement Park
For most people, there is no reason you can’t go to the amusement park and ride all the roller coasters you would like. Instead, there are steps you can take to avoid injury and protect yourself while still having fun.
Prepare Before Your Visit to the Amusement Park
You are unlikely to ever find yourself unexpectedly at an amusement park, which means you can prepare your body well in advance. It is ideal to go into each ride with as little tension as possible in your neck and back. For the days leading up to your visit, you can use gentle stretches to help your muscles remain relaxed, and you can continue to do this between rides and throughout the day. Relieving this tension decreases your risk of muscle spasms as a reaction to rapid movement and force and lowers the chance of injury.
Read All Safety Warnings on Rides
The warnings on each ride are there for a reason and can be important for you to read. Each ride’s signs will be tailored to its specific risks, so just because you can go on one roller coaster doesn’t mean you can assume all of them are safe. Be sure you meet size requirements, don’t have any existing conditions listed, and are able to properly use all of the safety equipment on the ride. This is important for things like back injuries, but also be sure to read warnings about other conditions, like heart problems and pregnancy.
Use All Safety Mechanisms
Roller coasters are built to be as safe as they can be, as long as you use all the right mechanisms. The attendant should be able to check your harness or safety belt to make sure you’ve fastened it properly, and it’s tight enough before the ride begins- some parks even let you sit in a sample seat in line to ensure the seat is comfortable and you know how the belt works.
You can also check for metal bars that are there to help you brace yourself while riding. This can absorb some of the force that would otherwise be put onto your back or spine.
A lot of the risk of roller coasters comes from your body not anticipating the swift and unexpected movements of the track. If you keep your eyes open, you can better anticipate the drops and turns and properly adjust. For example, if the coaster is moving more than 30 miles per hour, you are at greater risk of getting whiplash when your head snaps back. To avoid this, you can try and maintain your posture, avoiding leaning forward to prevent the increased pressure on your spinal disc and stopping your head from jerking.
Drink the Right Things
At any amusement park, staying hydrated is important as you walk around and exert energy, often in the sun. Staying hydrated also helps to ensure your spine and joints stay lubricated and offer all the protection possible.
It is also best to avoid riding a roller coaster if you have been drinking alcohol. Being under the influence can make it difficult to anticipate movement as needed, as well as making you more likely to lose your balance.
Avoid Poorly Maintained Rides
Many amusement parks are well-kept, and the rides will meet all safety standards, being tested and repaired frequently. But other venues are less cared for, and you should be cautious in these scenarios. Not only can the ride be more likely to malfunction, but the safety equipment also may not be up to date. Additionally, you should also keep an eye out for who is operating the ride to be sure they are not intoxicated or failing to pay attention.
Take Breaks Between Rides
While you want to pack as much fun into your day as possible, it’s not recommended to go on ride after ride without resting in between. Just a short break to use the restroom or get a snack can be enough to give your body a chance to rest before you get on another ride. If you start to feel tired or sick, this is a sign to take it easy for a while and slow down.
Don’t Bring Extra Items
Many roller coasters don’t allow you to bring any items with you, but even if they do, you should make use of the lockers. Holding a phone up for photos can cause you to be in a bad position during movement or even drop it and cause injury to other riders. If you do bring something with you and it falls, let it go rather than trying to search for it and contorting yourself to an unsafe position.
What to Do If Your Back Hurts After Riding a Roller Coaster
Once you get off a roller coaster, if you notice any pain or anything that feels different, be sure to take time to rest and avoid going on any other fast rides for the rest of the day.
If you do find yourself in pain when you get home from the amusement park, it’s important to recognize this quickly and seek the appropriate care.
You may not notice symptoms of a back or neck injury for hours or even days. The adrenaline from your fun day and the exhaustion may cover up symptoms, even if an injury has already occurred. When it wears off is when you will begin to notice soreness, stiffness, and other telltale signs of a spinal injury. It’s important not to chalk these up to general soreness and to treat them as potential injuries. The sooner you are able to get treatment, the less time the injury will have to worsen and become more severe.
At AICA Conyers, our range of specialists will be able to do a full evaluation to determine what is causing your symptoms and the appropriate course of treatment. With chiropractors, orthopedists, neurologists, radiologists, and more in the office, no matter what kind of injury you have sustained, we will be able to create the right plan for you. Contact us today to schedule your first appointment.