Canadian X Games Skier Sarah Burke in Coma After Brain Injury-UPDATED

Canadian Freestyle skier Sarah Burke has been pushing the envelope for 10 years.

This time she may have pushed a little too far.

The  four-time Winter X Games winner was injured Tuesday  during a training run on the superpipe in Park City, Utah. The injury put the 29 year old into a coma.

Peter Judge of the Canadian Freestyle team  told Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper:

She landed a trick down in the bottom end of the pipe and kind of bounced from her feet to her head… It wasn’t anything that looked like a catastrophic fall, so I’m a bit mystified.

Today, Burke underwent surgery to repair a torn vertebral artery, which had caused bleeding into her brain.

In a statement released by Burke’s publicist, Dr. William Couldwell, the neurosurgeon who performed the operation, said:

With injuries of this type, we need to observe the course of her brain function before making definitive pronouncements about Sarah’s prognosis for recovery. Our neuro critical care team will be monitoring her condition and response continuously over the coming hours and days.

What are vertebral arteries?

The vertebral arteries are a pair of arteries that supply blood to the back of the brain.

This part of the brain contains structures that are crucial for keeping a person alive. For instance, the brainstem controls breathing and swallowing, among other things. Parts of the brain help with vision (occipital lobes) and movement coordination (cerebellum) are also located in the back of the brain.

How can the vertebral arteries be injured?

Injuries to or near the spinal column in the neck can injure the vertebral arteries.
There are three main ways:

  1. A blunt, powerful blow to the neck.
  2. Hyperextension, such as whiplash.
  3. Piercing neck injuries ( such as a gun shot wound or stabbing)

What are the symptoms of vertebral artery injury?

Because there are two vertebral arteries on a side,  this type of injury may not show any symptoms.  This makes it hard to diagnose.  However if the injury is severe symptoms include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Difficulty swallowing.
  • Headache, neck pain, dizziness, ringing in the ears.
  • Vision problems.
  • Swelling or bruising in the injured area.

Burke will be kept in a medically induced coma to help minimize brain swelling during her recovery.

We wish  her well.

In the meantime, we can enjoy watching her Winter X Games Gold Metal Run:

UPDATE January 19, 2012

Sarah Burke died today. The skier never regained consciousness.

Her publicist confirmed in a statement that Burke passed away “peacefully surrounded by those she loved,” her parents and husband Rory Bushfield.

Her family has donated her organs to help others. What a wonderful gift has come from such a tragedy!

Michele R. Berman, M.D. was Clinical Director of The Pediatric Center, a private practice on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. from 1988-2000, and was named Outstanding Washington Physician by Washingtonian Magazine in 1999. She was a medical internet pioneer having established one of the first medical practice websites in 1997. Dr. Berman also authored a monthly column for Washington Parent Magazine.

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