Each year, deer hunting enthusiasts come out by the thousands, and take to the field in hopes of snagging a buck or doe. Instead, some may wind up in the hospital or worse. Deer hunting is a dangerous sport.
Although shooting accidents do happen, it is the act of deer hunting itself that can often prove more dangerous in the form of falls, heart ailments and other issues.
A study by the Ohio State University Medical Center in 2010 found that among hunting-related injuries, 50 percent were from falls and only 29 percent were from gunshot wounds. Among fall-related injuries, 92 percent were from tree stands.
With a typical tree stand placed 10 to 30 feet in the air, someone falling from that height could hit the ground at more than 30 mph, according to the study.
Being out in the cold with heavy gear and facing an adrenaline rush can take a toll on someone even if they are in shape. Deer hunting risks include heart attack and other health-related issues.
Any hunting-related injury can also be exacerbated by the fact that deer hunters tend to be out in the woods, far from help and separated from each other. If someone is hurt, their hunting buddies might not know about it until the end of the day—with the victim at risk of greater injury and hypothermia.
Tree Stands Top the List
Dr. Nathaniel Brooks, a neurosurgeon at the University of Wisconsin Hospital, sees an increase in these injuries every deer hunting season.
“Certainly the most significant injuries that I deal with tend to be related to falls from tree stands rather than what most people would expect, which would be gunshot wounds and things like that,” Brooks said.
The Ohio study found that deer hunting is a dangerous sport. Among injuries from tree and hunting stand falls, 81 percent of them required surgery and 59 percent of them suffered fractures.
Brooks says using a harness while in a deer hunting stand is a crucial. Deer hunting stands typically are not very large and hunters are at risk of falling asleep, given how early they start their day. Brooks says the most dangerous part of using a deer hunting stand seems to be the transition when people are climbing in or out of the stand.
Many of the injuries that Brooks sees are from people who hit the ground headfirst, on their neck or upper back. “It’s a pretty high likelihood of having a spinal cord injury with these types of falls, and that can be a partial spinal cord injury where you’re paralyzed, so it can be quite devastating,” Brooks said.
If someone does fall from a tree stand and they may have fractured their back, they should only be transported on a flat backboard or something similar, so it is generally better for emergency personnel to be brought to the victim rather than the other way around. Brooks said it depends on how the person fell while deer hunting and what their injuries are.
If the victim feels extreme pain and does not feel like they could move, that is an indication of a severe injury. Also consider how long it would take to get help to the victim and whether they are at risk of hypothermia from being exposed to the cold.
“The key thing is stabilization of the patient, not moving them, unless they’re in significant danger. Keep them from further injuring their spinal cord if there is a suspicion of a spinal cord injury,” Brooks said.
Deer Hunting Can Fill Hearts With Adrenaline
Deer Hunting can also take a toll on the heart, especially if someone has heart disease or does not get enough exercise in the off-season.
Dr. Marc Shelton, an interventional cardiologist and president of Prairie Cardiovascular in Springfield, Ill. sees an increase in heart attacks every fall among deer hunters. The physical demands, cold weather and excitement can add up to problems even for those who think they are healthy.
“They may be excited about the deer hunting so their adrenaline goes up,” Shelton said. “They’ve got increased adrenaline, increased blood pressure, increased heart rate, increased cardiac work from the cold and maybe dragging deer and carrying guns—all going together to make heart attacks during hunting fairly common.”
A study by the Beaumont Hospital Cardiac Rehabilitation Program, published in the American Journal of Cardiology in 2007, equipped male deer hunters with heart monitors and sent them into the field.
It found the heart rates of some deer hunters would nearly double just from seeing a deer, even if the hunter was standing still. The authors concluded that hunting was such a strenuous activity that it could trigger heart disease in a sedentary person.
“If you’ve been a couch potato, you have to be careful going to a high level of activity without training,” Shelton said. “You shouldn’t outstrip your physical abilities all at once in the cold. It’s like shoveling snow, the analogy there is if you’re not in good shape and you have a heart issue, you shouldn’t be shoveling snow.”
In addition to the physical demands of deer hunting, Shelton said hunter tend to sit quietly in a blind, waiting for game, where they run the risk of developing a Deep Vein Thrombosis. DVT is a clot in the leg.
Not only can a DVT damage someone’s leg, but it could also become dislodged and relocate to their lungs and become a pulmonary embolism, a potentially fatal blockage of the main artery to the lungs.
Shelton says the signs of a heart attack are a chest discomfort with or without shortness of breath, with or without itchiness, with perhaps some nausea or vomiting and heart palpitations.
A DVT is usually associated with swelling and pain in the calves, sometimes in one leg and not the other. A pulmonary embolism is associated with a shortness of breath and sometimes a sharp pain in the chest.
Staying Safe & Healthy
Shelton said everyone needs cardiovascular activity just for regular health, but deer hunters can put themselves at risk if they try to go straight from the couch to the field without building up their physical fitness over time. Deer hunting is a dangerous sport.
“If you’re doing a couple of miles of walking a day, the chance that you could walk three or four miles in a day is pretty good, but if your usual activity is two blocks a day, you wouldn’t necessarily expect to push forward for a four mile hunt,” Shelton said.
If someone does have a problem, it is important to get to a hospital as soon as possible. With that in mind, Brooks recommends having an emergency plan in place and a way for deer hunters to stay in touch with each other out in the woods, either by cell phone or radio if possible.
“If somebody twists an ankle or breaks a leg, those are other common injuries that can occur, how are you going to get them out of there?” Brooks said. “That kind of preparedness, which is a little bit of a doomsday scenario when you’re trying to have fun deer hunting, but it’s good to have thought it through at least once or twice before it happens.”
Additional signs of a heart attack, from the American Heart Association:
• An uncomfortable pressure, fullness or squeezing
• Pain in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes or goes away and comes back again
• Pain that spreads to the shoulders, neck or arms and is often accompanied by feeling lightheaded, sweating, nausea and shortness of breath
Tips for healthy hunting, from Beaumont Hospitals:
• Anyone with heart disease or with a family history of heart disease, high blood pressure or high cholesterol should have their doctor’s permission before going on a hunt
• With their doctor’s approval, hunters should begin walking 30 minutes per day eight to 12 weeks before a hunt
• Refrain from alcohol and smoking the day before or during hunting
• Refrain from eating a heavy meal before hunting
• Hunters with heart disease should not drag a deer out of the woods
• Hunters should seek immediate medical attention if they experience dizziness, chest pain or heart palpitations