Amusement parks, carnivals and county fairs are home to gravity-defying thrill rides. While waiting in line for these rides, you may have noticed signs cautioning people with health issues from boarding. Some of the concern is over G-force, or the additional force (aside from gravity) that your body experiences from speeding up or slowing down on a ride. Here are some ways G-force — along with the twists, turns and other sudden movements that make thrill rides, well, thrilling — have the potential to affect our health.
Here are some things to think about before buckling in and taking off:
Back and neck
The abrupt movement of thrill rides can put extra pressure on the spine. These movements can potentially injure bones, muscles and soft tissues leading to back or neck pain. Those with existing back and neck issues are at higher risk for injury. However, people who are younger, thinner or of advanced age are also likely to experience complications because their neck muscles may not be strong enough to keep their heads steady while being tossed in various directions during a ride.
The sheer force of thrill rides can put pregnant women at risk for placental abruption — when the placenta separates from the mother’s uterine wall. The placenta is an organ that delivers oxygen and nutrients to the fetus. The separation from the uterus can deprive the fetus of essential nutrients to thrive, and cause complications such as vaginal bleeding and pain.
“It’s best to avoid thrill rides, such as rollercoasters, if you know you are pregnant,” suggests Dr. Joseph Aquilina, a family medicine doctor and chief medical officer for SharpCare Medical Group. “For obvious ethical reasons there will never be any studies to test this and quantify the risk. However, we do know other high-impact events, such as car accidents, do pose a real risk to both mom and baby. We can try to extrapolate this data to thrill rides, but in general, the safest thing is to avoid these rides if you know you are pregnant.”
Speed and jarring movements, along with the anxiety and fear that comes with being on a thrill ride, may trigger irregular heartbeats or cause the heart to beat faster than usual.
“Most of the effect of increased heart rate appears to be attributed to the psychological stress and anxiety we feel,” says Dr. Aquilina. “This is especially seen in the beginning of the ride as we are climbing to the top of the rollercoaster. Our pulse is speeding up in anticipation of the ride long before our bodies feel any of the physiologic stress that is to come.”
An increase in heart rate is typically fine for healthy adults, but may pose a problem for someone with cardiovascular issues.
“There are cases in the medical literature of cardiovascular complications from thrill rides, but complications are really not seen in a young healthy population,” says Dr. Aquilina. “For young, healthy people, there is essentially no risk for heart attack or prolonged arrhythmias from riding a rollercoaster.”
However, Dr. Aquilina warns that the risk is increased for people with untreated high blood pressure, a previous heart attack, an implanted pacemaker or defibrillator, or with other forms of heart disease. “People in these higher-risk categories should talk to their physician before riding a rollercoaster or other thrill rides,” he says.