Do Roller Coasters Give You a Pain in the Head?

January 21, 2000; updated May 20, 2005

The thrill of a good roller coaster: you hold your breath, your hair blows in the wind, and your heart races as you speed along the track. A report in an issue of Neurology (January 11, 2000) suggests that some giant roller coasters can do even more...they may cause the brain to bleed and the blood to clot in what is called a subdural hematoma. A subdural hematoma is caused by the rupture of blood vessels near the surface of the brain. Blood gets trapped between the meninges (coverings of the brain) and the brain. The hematoma causes pressure on the brain, which may cause headaches and vomiting.

Neurologists at the Chiba University School of Medicine in Japan describe the case of a 24 year old woman who rode three different roller coasters (each one twice) at the Fujikyu Highland Park. One of these roller coasters is called the Fujiyama. The Fujiyama roller coaster can reach speeds of 130.0 km/hour (80.8 miles/hr). [According to the World of Coasters, the "Kingda Ka" at the Six Flags Theme Park in New Jersey, is the world's tallest and fastest roller coaster. This rides travels up to 205 kilometers/hour (128 miles/hour) and climbs to a height of 139 meters (456 feet).]

On the way home from the amusement park, the woman developed a headache. Four days after the headache started, she visited her doctors who ran some tests but did not find anything too unusual. During this first visit to the doctor, the woman did not say anything about her roller coaster rides. Her headaches continued for two months so she visited her doctors again. This time the doctors used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to examine the woman's brain. They discovered subdural hematomas (blood clots) near the surface on both sides of her brain. Surgery was performed to remove these blood clots and the woman made a complete recovery in two months.

Doctors believe that this is not the first time that roller coasters have caused subdural hematomas. Reports of three men (ages 24, 64 and 77 yr old) who suffered subdural hematomas after roller coaster rides were published in 1994, 1995 and 1997. Of course millions of people ride roller coasters every year and do not suffer brain bleeding. It may be that some people are more susceptible to this type of injury or, as in the case of the 24-yr-old woman, they ride extremely fast and bumpy roller coasters too many times and this may cause damage.

Perhaps everyone should be aware of the potential problem. As the authors of the Neurology article write:

"Builders and designers, managers of amusement parks, and potential passengers on giant roller coasters need to be aware of this risk."

Roller coasters are supposed to thrill you, but not damage your brain.

Hear It
"Subdural hematoma"

Did you know?

References and further information:

  1. Bo-Abbas, Y. and Bolton, C.F. Roller-coaster headache. N. Engl. J. Med., 332:1585, 1995.

  2. Fernandes, C.M.B. and Daya, M.R. A roller coaster headache: case report. J. Trauma, 37:1007-1010, 1994.

  3. Fukutake, T., Mine, S., Yamakami, I., Yamaura, A., and Hattori, T. Roller coaster headache and subdural hematoma. Neurology, 54: 264, 2000.

  4. Synder, R.W., Sridharan, S.T., and Pagnanelli, D.M. Subdural hematoma following roller coaster ride while anticoagulated. Amer. J. Med., 102:488-489, 1997.

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