Will Back Protectors Eventually Prevent All Back Injuries?

January 14th, 2007, Montgenevre, France. I had been looking forward to this race for months. At 11 years old, I was finally going to be competing in my first major race. The day before the competition was spent by my coach preparing my brand-new skis in the best way possible: waxing the skis, sharpening the edges, we had it all under control. As per usual, the first competitor was scheduled to run at 8 am. Accordingly, I get on my skis around 6:30 am and embark on my first warm-up run. It was dark, I was not able to see much of the terrain movements, and the run was icier than ever. You guessed it. I got into an accident. After somehow losing control of my skis, a bump on the terrain I did not see sent me up in the air, and I landed straight on my coccyx. The shock wave traveled up my spine and fractured two of my thoracic vertebrae, resulting in: a few days of fear regarding whether or not I was ever going to be able to walk again, weeks spent at the hospital, months of wearing a corset 24/7 and years of physical therapy. 

The back (including the spine), knees and head are on top of the list of the most commonly injured body parts in competitive skiers. But what has technology done to prevent those? Well – with increased understanding of skiing biomechanics and injuries, technology has made the ski bindings able to release past a certain threshold to try and avoid leg injuries, helmet-wearing is more popular than ever. With regards to injuries to the back and spine, despite not being enforced by the international ski federation at the time, it was common practice to wear a back protection for all training and races – evidently, back protection did not seem to have prevented injuries in my case. It was only a few years later that the federation started enforcing the wear of back protection for both training and racing. Back protection was then made of a shell back armor lying flat against the body (covering the cervical spine to the coccyx) and adapting to the anatomical bend of the athlete’s spine with maximum thickness in the middle part of the protection and reducing towards the edges of the back protector. These were typically made out of hard plastic with soft cushioning foam on the inside (hard shell protection systems). However, because of the properties of the materials used in such protections, energy absorption at impact was very limited. Later came the soft-shell back armor. Using lighter and more flexible material primarily made out of viscoelastic plastic foams, these back protectors were able to harden their structure at the time of impact to absorb the energy, spread it over a larger area thus reducing the potential for injury.

More recently came the skiing airbags. The D-air, designed and engineered by the Italian brand Dainese, made its official debut on the slopes in 2015. Through collaboration with the international ski federation, the wearable airbag was derived from the motorcycling airbags already produced by the company with professional downhill skiers in mind. The device is equipped with three gyroscopes, three accelerometers and a GPS unit feeding information to a custom algorithm able to differentiate between the forces involved in ski racing and the ones experienced in a fall. Using a custom algorithm based on the racer’s skiing biomechanics (acceleration and body position), the wearable device is able to decide whether or not a crash is taking place and deploy the airbag accordingly covering the racer’s torso and shoulders.

Over the last decade, back protectors have become increasingly popular, and technology has made tremendous progress toward designing products capable of preventing potentially life-altering injuries. Although the technology available today can not prevent all injuries to the back and spine, it has already enabled to address some of the main issues associated with the sport.

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