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Amusement Parks

By Eric Van De Graaff, MD May 16, 2011 Posted in: Heart Health

Keep Your Hands and Legs Inside the Ride At All Times

Last winter my family and I had the opportunity to vacation to Orlando, Florida, where we spent several days enjoying the magic of the happiest place on earth and getting a glimpse of our planet's future after centuries of unchecked population growth.  During that time I had the opportunity to spend many hours standing in long, serpentine lines waiting to enjoy something that lasts no more than a minute or so: the public restrooms.

While waiting to ride on one of my favorite attractions I put some thought to the warning sign posted near the loading platform.  The ride is called Expedition Everest and is meant to simulate the experience of ascending the highest peak on earth on a train that manages to deliver the top-of-the-world experience but with oxygen levels curiously similar to what’s found in central Florida.  The ride is plenty exciting.  After winding through the mountain peaks your train abruptly stops, then plummets backward into the darkness of Yeti-infested caves, before magically reappearing in a gift shop with cheesy photographs and overpriced Himalayan tchotchkes.

Prominently displayed for the benefit of those of us waiting in line were several signs warning would-be thrill seekers of the dangers posed by such wanton excitement.  “Anybody with heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, back problems, etc. . . should stay away from this ride and avoid having fun at all cost.”

In my opinion, such warnings seem a little broad in scope.  As many of you are aware, diseases like hypertension are extremely common with over a quarter of the adults in this country suffering from chronically elevated blood pressure.  Take a random survey of amusement park attendees and you’ll probably find at least a third of the visitors have some type of health condition that would direct them away from the roller coasters and to the more mundane attractions—if the posted warnings were indeed taken seriously.

What constitutes a heart problem that is ominous enough to actually pose a risk to a rider's health and limit the amusement park patron to the Dumbo ride?  Curious about this, I did a little research on the subject.

There isn’t much good data about chronic medical illnesses and the effect that Tilt-A-Whirls and Vomitrons have on people with them.  The most definitive paper I could find on the issue describes a ten-year survey of amusement park deaths in the United States.  Over that period a total of 40 people died, most in roller-coaster related incidents.  Eleven deaths were employees, all of whom involved injuries sustained either working on the rides or standing near them.  The report concluded that 18 of the 40 died of medical conditions that “might have been caused or exacerbated by riding a roller coaster,” and that of these 15 were due to intracranial hemorrhages (bleeding in the brain) or cardiac problems.

So what exactly are the cardiac problems that would predispose you to dropping over dead while screaming at the top of your lungs and feeling your stomach launch into your chest?  It appears the most common cardiovascular-related problem has more to do with your blood vessels than with the heart itself: a tear in the carotid or vertebral arteries of the neck brought on by the unusual whiplash-like forces that throw the rider’s head around.  A person with underlying atherosclerosis of these vessels is more prone to sheer stress and subsequent stroke.

The excitement of the ride can also obviously trigger a heart attack.  I’ve previously written on the interplay between stress and acute events.  I imagine the excitement of plummeting several hundred feet and then barreling skyward at freeway speeds could certainly release enough adrenalin to trigger both arrhythmia and infarction in susceptible individuals.

The absolute numbers, however, argue that such an event is exceedingly unlikely, despite the generally poor health of amusement park customers.  If only 18 people died from cardiovascular problems in ten years’ of roller-coaster riding, then it seems that your chance of buying the big one while riding the Thunderbolt, the Magnum, or the Phantom’s Revenge is relatively miniscule.

That’s not to say that there aren’t other dangers lurking in the world of theme parks.  Consider the following, all hazards that are considerably more threatening than the rare roller-coaster heart attack.  These are the truly concerning hazards, the ones that really deserve the warning signs:

Concession Sticker Shock.  If you think a 60 mph plunge down a rickety track can rev you up, imagine what happens to your cardiovascular system when you have to pull out a Ben Franklin to treat your family to a shriveled hot dog, soggy fries and a watered-down soft drink.  As you step up to the counter be sure to brace yourself for a shock that’ll make the Tower of Terror look like teeter-totter.

The Funnel Cake Stress Test.  Amusement park dietary choices offer us cardiologists a rare opportunity to be able to perform comprehensive cardiovascular testing outside the office on large numbers of people.  Pound down a couple of funnel cakes and a churro chaser and, if you survive the rest of the day without your coronary arteries exploding in your chest, you’re probably good for at least a couple more years of life.  For those of you up for the real challenge look for the now ubiquitous fried Twinkies.

Parking Lot Alzheimers.  These days, if you visit a California theme park, odds are pretty good that a series of parking attendants will direct you toward a parking stall somewhere in central Nevada.  When you look for your car at the end of the day—after hours in the sun on rides that treat your cranium like a bobble-head—you’ll be lucky to locate the zip code you parked in.

Pregnancy Psych Evaluation.  On nearly ever ride there’s a sign alerting women to the dangers of riding while pregnant.  Right—like that sign is really needed.  Somehow I don’t see hordes of expectant mothers—who already spend hours over the toilet bowl every morning—flocking to spend a few harrowing minutes testing the effectiveness of their Zofran on the Gravitron unless they are legitimately insane.

Involuntary Ankle Reconstruction.  Spend 12 hours standing in lines and if your ankles don’t swell up to the size of State Fair zucchinis you should count yourself lucky.  Most frequent visitors end up with fallen arches and a tangle of varicose veins that make their calves look like a map of the New York subway system.

Auditory Assault.  The next time you schedule a weekend at an amusement park make sure to reserve an appointment at your local hearing aide store.  Your eardrums may not recover from the blood curdling screams as you tear down the track or the cries from the 5-year-olds whose parents can’t afford to pay for a character breakfast.

My guess is that you’ll survive the roller coasters, log flumes, screamin’ swings, drop towers, and every other contraption of gyrational terror with your coronary arteries intact.  It’s the rest of the park you really should be worrying about.

Eric Van De Graaff, MD
Eric Van De Graaff, MD

Eric Van De Graaff, MD is a Heart & Vascular Specialist at CHI Health Clinic.

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