Upended: the Deadly Odds of Slipping on Ice

Contrary to popular myth, Dr. Robert Atkins—creator of the low-carbohydrate Atkins Diet—did not die of a heart attack. What killed him was a patch of ice.

Atkins, 72 years old, fell on his way to work and died nine days later from an epidural hematoma, or bleeding between the brain and skull. Nine years later, actress Natasha Richardson died from the same complication, after slipping during a skiing lesson in Quebec.

It’s unlikely, but it happens: The odds of dying from a fall on ice or snow in a year are 1 in 4,908,000.

The US population hovers around 304,000,000, which means roughly 60 people die from slipping on ice or snow every year. But wintry conditions are only involved in about 10% of deaths stemming from an accidental tumble. The overall odds a person will die from an accidental fall in a year are 1 in 435,800. According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS), accidental falls are the leading cause of non-fatal injuries in the US, and the primary cause of fatal injuries for Americans 65 and older. Most injuries come from striking a hard floor.

Perhaps it’s the relative rarity that guarantees a fatal fall on the snow or ice will make the news. To qualify, according to criteria from the CDC, these winter-weather falls are confined to those “on the same level,” meaning the February 15, 2010, fatal plunge of climber Joseph Bohlig, who fell a quarter-mile to his death on Mount St. Helens, does not count. Natasha Richardson’s seemingly innocuous slip on a beginner’s ski slope does.

The idea that a short fall can kill may be tough to comprehend, especially since many victims, including Richardson, seem fine in the immediate aftermath. It is dubbed the talk and die syndrome—the victim seems to shake off the fall immediately afterward, but blood begins to accumulate on the outside or inside of the brain, leading to crisis. Loss of consciousness, coma, and even death can follow.

An epidural hematoma is often to blame. It starts right after the head injury: blood begins to leak in the head, forming a pressurized sac of fluid between the brain and skull. This pressure damages the brain, which swells further in response. Lifesaving medical intervention is required—often a partial craniotomy, which involves removing a piece of the skull to relieve the temporary pressure.

Up to 70 to 80 percent of the time, epidural hematomae occur after a blow to the temporal bone, a relatively weak portion of the skull just over the ear. Physically, this—and the back of the skull—are the cranial spots most likely to bump during a fall on ice or snow. The top of the head would be a much safer place to hit one’s head, but how do you hit the top of your head during a fall like that?

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