If you were anything like me growing up, there were few thrills in life equal to back-to-back rides of my favorite coasters (Superman and Batman at Six Flags Over Georgia), getting bounced around like in a pinball machine but eager for more. As I have gotten older, however, my coaster junkie tendencies have ebbed as my resiliency on rides has decreased over the years. And as I have learned more about Chiropractic and its benefits, I wondered how chiropractors view thrill rides and what we can do to protect ourselves if we choose to hit up the amusement parks this summer.

An interesting 2005 study published in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation reviewed records of rides of the Rattler coaster in San Antonio, Texas over 19 months in 1992 and 1993. It cited 932,000 riders of the Rattler over that time, estimated at 300,000 to 600,000 individuals as there could, of course, be duplicate riders. 656 neck and back injuries were reported during the study period, with 39 of those considered significant by study criteria. Statistically speaking, that only accounts for 0.07% of all rides, less than one-tenth of 1%. The study concluded that the greatest likely explanation for injury from traumatic loading, such as that received during an amusement park ride, is an individual’s susceptibility to injury. This is an unknown variable, of course, on a larger scale but it might indicate that it could be a good idea to get examined by a chiropractor prior to an amusement park visit. Your chiropractor can identify any problem areas, perform an adjustment if necessary, provide stretching exercises and set up an appointment for follow-up after your adventures. 

Injury Factors

The Spine Institute of North America further explains the issue at hand in their article “How To Protect Your Spine At Amusement Parks.” In regard to how strapping into a roller coaster could cause injuries, there are a number of factors. One chief concern is the stress on the muscles of the neck as they protect your spine. A standard coaster fastening mechanism like a seat belt or bar only restrains the torso, so other parts of the body like the head, legs and arms will have freedom to move. This mainly puts the neck at risk, because the neck has 10 to 11 pounds of head weight to stabilize. Throughout the course of your ride, the wobbling motion requires your neck muscles to quickly adjust and adapt to these jarring movements to prevent your head from bobbing to the point of spinal injury.

Forward bending or forward flexion, as well as twisting and turning body rotations, increases pressure on the backside and the disc in your spinal canal. This can trigger pain, especially if problems are already part of your history. Disc herniation is also possible, as well as strains and slipped discs. Backward bending on the other side of the equation puts added force on spinal joints. So, for individuals with previous back injuries, muscles and back ligaments may still be healing or sensitive and could become irritated or inflamed with intense forward or backward motion. Issues like herniated discs are at risk for pain or possibly injury on thrill rides. Arthritis pain could also worsen after a coaster ride for many of the reasons already listed.

The bottom line is that any ride with significant force typically comes with at least minor risk of lower back pain, neck pain or herniated disc issues, especially for people that have a history of these complaints. That is why many such rides post regulations discouraging riders with neck and back problems or recent surgeries related to these from riding. Most of us shudder at the thought of having to give up roller coaster riding altogether. The good news is that, with a little planning, preparation and common sense, most people with low to moderate risk can mitigate some possibility of injury.

Amusement Park Spinal Safety Tips

  1. Prepare your body before your visit. Tension buildup in your back and neck can lead to injury on rides, so work on releasing that tension with stretches in the days before your trip and right before hopping onto a coaster. With loosened muscles, your chances of muscle spasms related to rapid movement and force decreases.
  2. Heed the safety warnings on rides and listen to ride personnel. Signage will tell you in more detail how intense a particular ride is and if it has potential to aggravate neck or back problems. Follow all height and weight regulations. Safety information on rides can likely be found on the park’s website prior to arrival as well.
  3. Use safety mechanisms as designed. Many coasters have metal bars that you can use to brace yourself as you ride, which can help lessen some of the force put on the spine and back. Make sure you fit comfortably in the seat. Some parks have a seat tester that park guests can try out before you ride.
  4. Pay close attention during your ride. Keep your eyes open so you see twists, turns and drops and brace your body when they occur. Whiplash is a common complaint if you don’t keep your head back prior to sudden stops. Try to maintain a comfortable, upright posture through the ride – or as stable and comfortable posture as possible based on the seat style. Don’t lean forward, as that causes increased pressure on the spinal disc.
  5. Avoid riding a coaster under the influence.
  6. Keep hydrated with plenty of water the entire length of your visit.

With a little bit of preparation, you should be able to have a great day at the park without fear of back or spinal injury.

The Days After

It is not uncommon to have some pain the day after an amusement park visit, but rest and icing of painful areas along with standard home care should take care of it most of the time. Alternating heat can also be beneficial. Yet, if pain persists or worsens, seek professional care from a trusted chiropractor.