Kamikaze Rides

Do Roller Coasters Injure the Brain?

Sitting here with a dull, gnawing headache and cloudy brain sensation a day after a visit to Six Flags, one must ask if roller coasters are capable of inducing trauma to the brain. I have never had a concussion but if I had to guess, I would say this is what Post Concussive Syndrome feels like. It is undeniable and unpleasant enough make me decline future invitations to carnival and theme park rides. Rides I said. I could still go for the greasy food and impossible throwing games.

Since I do not recall ever having uncomfortable cranial sensations post theme park thrills as a child or teenager, I had not thought to research this topic before revisiting these thrill seeking rides as an adult. Perhaps we are simply more aware of our ails and sensations as an adult, as a constant triage of what is happening to my body this time. So I looked into seemingly non-bias research studies, peer reviewed of course, to see if there had been any documented or measured injures to otherwise healthy individuals post roller coaster.

This is when I discovered a term called the G-force, which is used to rate the force against gravity one is subjected to going down roller coaster hills. My concern was primarily around the extended and significant amount of shaking and sudden changing of direction in which most of today’s roller coasters subject its patrons. That is when I started to reflect back to make myself judge whether most people in the park were of a certain socioeconomonic status translating to being somewhat more or less knowledgeable of the neurological changes and impact a ride could induce. Lets be clear, if Shaken Baby Syndrome is physical abuse and damaging so are these rides as our brains and bodies were literally thrown around in countering directions for over three minutes per ride. Okay so I have doctoral education in neurology so I am aware of coup countrecoup injuries where the brain suffers injury not only at the point of impact but also at the opposite side of the brain were the brain recoils. Not to mention the bruising the brain suffers from being rubbed around in the rigid boney skull. It makes perfect sense that theme park rides are a significant threat to our neurological integrity. But why is this not common knowledge? Well, it was not too long ago that riding a motorcycle or bike without a helmet was perfectly legal. So when you know better, you do better.

Notable mentions include,

Valerie Biousse, neurology specialist at Lariboisiere Hospital in Paris, warns that the numbers of cases where people began getting severe headaches hours after riding a roller coaster have increased as fairgrounds offer bigger rides and more people partake. The damage observed in patients, who were aged between 20 and 55, ranged from small strokes to minor bleeding in the walls of head arteries. These can be caused by the abrupt changes in acceleration that are typical of modern roller coasters. The effect is almost like a car crash which are known to produce invisible injuries that only become apparent the day after or days later.

Dr. Biousse told New Scientist magazine that the four patients she examined included a dance instructor in her thirties, and half of the patients she examined had no underlying diseases that could have contributed to the injuries she observed. In every published case, the first symptom was an unusual headache. People should be alarmed if they have a headache a little time after going on a roller coaster ride, or better yet reconsider the cost benefit analysis of the brief adrenaline rush.

The Health and Safety Executive, which is responsible for licensing roller coasters in the United Kingdom (UK), said that there is no legal limit on the G forces that a ride may exert. The onus is on the operator to demonstrate that risks to peoples’ health and safety is kept as low as reasonably practicable. That doesn’t mean zero risk. But we cannot leave it up to the owner operators who profit from families patronizing theme parks to warn us against their best interest. Special thanks to the Independent for bringing light to the issue.

A National Institute of Health (NIH) funded study has been published by Smith, et. al., in the Journal of Neurotrauma showing blood vessel abnormalities in the brain and high blood pressure caused by excitement are likely to blame for injuries as well. How many times have you braced yourself for a steep roller coaster hill?
There has been enormous attention in the UK general press on the possibility that high G force roller coasters are inducing brain injury in riders but not so much in the United States (U.S.). Is this an issue of capitalism over health or simply lack of knowledge? Armed with a handful of anecdotal case reports of brain injuries, the U.S. Congress finally proposed legislation to regulate the level of G forces of roller coasters.
On the bright side, the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association found that the high speed jolting motion of a roller coaster can successfully dislodge a kidney stone from a patient, especially if they sit in a rear car. Hope this fun fact helps someone, but potentially at the expense of a few neurons.

Further on the bright side, thrill rides take us out of our element. It was the jerking sensation of a roller coaster that helped Sally Dare, a British woman, detect a brain tumor in which she was unaware. She began suffering from headaches and dizziness following a roller coaster ride in Florida. As her condition worsened, she went to see a doctor and was diagnosed with a subdural hematoma. Research shows not everyone takes the impact of these rides the same. Prior head injuries, strokes, and encephalopathy would put a rider at greater risk. Now you know.

About the author.

Tomika Chappell, Psy.D. CCC-SLP, CBIS, is a Certified Brain Injury Specialist, Speech Language Pathologist, and Psychotherapist for Level I Trauma Centers in the Southeast US and private practice. When not seeing patients, she prefers water sports to gravity challenging activities and encourages normalizing wearing helmets. Find @nowlogy and