The subject of head injuries and concussions has been getting a lot of attention in football and boxing over the past few years, but not so much when it comes to surfing. Finally, though, some of surfing’s greats are beginning to go public and admit there can be a problem. While the big wave surfers appear to get the most concussions, they say a surfer can really be anywhere and suffer a head injury—like getting hit in the head by another person’s surfboard.
Dr. Christopher Giza, director of the UCLA Steve Tisch BrainSPORT Program, told KTLA/5 recently that the few studies that have looked at brain injuries in surfing have found that the number of concussions has increased in the past two decades.
“One of the possibilities is that there are more people participating in the sport, so if there’s more in the sport, then the same percentage might have injuries,” Giza said. “Currently, there’s not really a culture of paying attention to head injuries in surfing and certainly no culture of wearing helmets.”
The Malibu surf culture reflects that.
Sander Lee, an employee at the Zuma Jay Surf Shop, said the only time they ever hear of someone using a helmet is for big wave surfing. “I’ve never seen anyone in Southern California wear a helmet, other than little kids just learning to surf,” Lee said in a phone interview. “We only ever sold one or two helmets a year, and stopped selling them.”
Callie Ross at Drill Surf & Skate said she never even heard of surf helmets. Morgan Curry at Becker Surfboards said they sell helmets, but usually only for large swells, although some locals buy them for surfing rocky areas.
Terry Simms, who founded Simba Surf Helmets and has suffered multiple concussions himself, told KTLA/5 that during the pandemic, the number of surfers in California doubled from one to two million. He said wearing a helmet doesn’t prevent all concussions but offers protection to surfers that hit sand, the surfboard itself, or even small waves.
“Much like it was in snowboarding not so long ago, helmets just aren’t really accepted in surf culture yet,” the World Surf League wrote earlier this year. They explain that surfers like to imitate their surf heroes and that the pros aren’t usually seen wearing helmets unless they have already experienced a brain injury. “But times do appear to be changing, and more and more young surfers at dangerous waves are wearing helmets,” World Surf concluded.
According to Surfer Today, studies report that nearly 40 percent of all surf-related injuries involve the head. “If you get hit by a surfboard…you can drown, suffer multiple lacerations, perforate an eardrum, or end up with facial and scalp cuts,” they cautioned.
Surfer Today went on to advise that wearing a helmet may not look cool but that it will absorb the energy from an impact and protect the head, neck, and spine from irreversible physical injuries. In addition, they report that a helmet’s hardshell “will help prevent loss of consciousness if something goes wrong and no one notices.”
Although Malibu has no coral reefs that can cause injury and seldom experiences big waves, experts are beginning to recommend wearing surf helmets in certain instances that do apply in Malibu; including beginners just learning to surf, young people, extreme weather conditions, surfing alone, and ultra-crowded surf spots.
According to the National Center for Health Research, concussions occur when a collision causes the brain to hit the inside of the skull. The greater the force of the impact, the more severe the concussion. Symptoms can include disorientation, memory problems, headaches, fogginess, and loss of consciousness. A second concussion often comes with symptoms that last longer than the first. The CDC reports that having more than one concussion can cause depression, anxiety, aggression, personality changes, and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, CTE, and other brain disorders.