Pattern and severity of injury in avalanche victims

High Alt Med Biol. 2007 Spring;8(1):56-61. doi: 10.1089/ham.2006.0815.


In avalanche accidents, the significance of major trauma as a cause of morbidity and mortality is controversial. The aim of this retrospective study is to determine the severity and pattern of injury in avalanche victims admitted to the University Hospital of Innsbruck between 1996 and 2005. A total of 49 significant injuries were found in 105 avalanche victims; the most frequent were of the extremities (n = 20), the chest (n = 18), and the spine (n = 7). In contrast, cerebral (n = 2), abdominal visceral (n = 1), and pelvic trauma (n = 1) were rare. The severity of injury was minor or moderate in most patients, with only 9 (8.6%) being severely or critically injured. Of 105 (34.3%) avalanche victims, 36 died. Autopsy was performed in 30 of 36 nonsurvivors. The cause of death in the remaining 6 victims was concluded from clinical, radiological, and electrophysiological findings. Trauma was responsible for deaths of only 2 avalanche victims (5.6%); both had cervical spine fractures with dislocation leading to death. One death was due to hypothermia, whereas the remaining 33 fatalities (91.7%) were due to asphyxia. The incidence of life-threatening or lethal trauma was well below 10%. Asphyxia is by far the most important reason for death. Deaths from trauma were solely due to isolated cervical injuries, demonstrating that the cervical spine may be a region at particular risk in avalanche victims.

MeSH terms

  • Accidents / statistics & numerical data*
  • Adult
  • Austria / epidemiology
  • Cause of Death
  • Disasters / statistics & numerical data*
  • Emergency Medical Services / statistics & numerical data
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Injury Severity Score*
  • Male
  • Medical Records / statistics & numerical data
  • Middle Aged
  • Mountaineering / statistics & numerical data*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Snow*
  • Wounds and Injuries / epidemiology*
  • Wounds and Injuries / etiology