The invisible jolt

Recent incidents of turbulence highlight the hidden dangers of air travel, including the risk of serious spinal injuries
Image used for representational pupose.
Image used for representational pupose.

BENGALURU: Air turbulence, often dismissed as a minor annoyance, can cause serious injuries to the spine and head. A recent incident on a Singapore Airlines flight from London to Singapore highlights this risk. Severe turbulence affected the flight, with 211 passengers on board, about 40 of whom reportedly suffered injuries.

Among the injured, 22 sustained spinal injuries, and six suffered brain and skull injuries. Notably, these passengers were not wearing seat belts, underscoring the importance of seat belt use throughout flights, even when the seat belt sign is off.

Modern aircraft are equipped with early warning systems to detect turbulence. However, clear air turbulence (CAT) remains near impossible to detect as it occurs without visible indicators and cannot be sensed by these systems. CAT is particularly dangerous because it can cause sudden altitude changes, forcefully throwing passengers around, and leading to spinal cord impacts.

This unpredictability means that turbulence can occur without warning, leaving passengers without time to fasten their seat belts and protect themselves. Thus, staying alert and wearing seat belts throughout the flight is crucial.

Why the spinal cord is most at risk: The spinal cord, housed within the spinal column, can be severely damaged during turbulence. A spinal column fracture can cause bone fragments to press against the spinal cord, leading to weakness and loss of function in the limbs. If the fracture occurs in the cervical region (neck), both the upper and lower limbs can be affected. Such injuries can be catastrophic and irreversible, potentially leaving individuals wheelchair-bound or bedridden for life. The spinal cord’s delicate nature means any damage can have lifelong consequences, even with timely surgery.

Wear Your Seat Belts All the Time: While air turbulence is generally unavoidable, its serious impact on the spine can be mitigated by consistently wearing seat belts. Seat belts are highly effective in reducing the impact and preventing severe spinal cord injuries. Passengers should always adhere to airline safety guidelines, keep their seat belts fastened, and take steps to protect their spine health from the potential dangers of sudden air turbulence.

A Concerning Trend

Last month, within a week of the Singapore Airlines flight incident a Qatar Airways flight from Doha to Dublin also experienced severe turbulence, leading to 12 passengers and crew members on board being injured. Experts suggest that climate change is contributing to an increase in turbulence, particularly clear-air turbulence (CAT). Studies indicate a 55 per cent rise in severe-or-greater CAT incidents over the North Atlantic since 1979, with projections suggesting further increases if CO2 levels continue to rise. This increase is linked to the intensification of jet streams and disrupted wind patterns at high altitudes.


The information provided on this page is not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the help of a medical professional regarding any health condition

(The writer is a consultant in spine surgery at Manipal Hospital, Millers Road)

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The New Indian Express