For the more than nine million Americans who ski or snowboard, February is prime time to hit the slopes. Most ski resorts have remained open during the pandemic and they are ready for snow lovers to enjoy a safe and healthy experience.
That is, until an injury occurs.
As with most physical activities, skiing and snowboarding carry risks. By learning more about these risks and following some basic guidelines, you can decrease your chance of an injury.
What are the risks?
An estimated 600,000 skiers or snowboarders sustain injuries each year which, depending on the injury, can be an uphill battle in terms of recovery.
A recent study showed that the injury rate among snowboarders has fluctuated over time but remains higher than for skiers. Injured snowboarders are typically younger, less experienced, and more often female than injured skiers. Wrist, shoulder, and ankle injuries are more common among snowboarders, while knee ligament injuries are the most common in skiers.
How do injuries typically occur?
Most snow sport injuries are caused by skiing on dangerous terrain, lift accidents, falls, and collisions. In some cases, fatigue after a long day on the slopes or poor judgment are the cause. The most common injury triggers are:
- Not enough rest or breaks during the day
- Skiing or snowboarding above ability level
- Faulty or inadequate equipment
- Dehydration and/or fatigue
- Skiing or snowboarding off the groomed trail or in a closed area
- Failure to observe warning signs
The most common injuries
Some of the most common ski and snowboard injuries include:
ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) rupture or tear. Some experts say that the incidence of this injury has tripled over the last 20 years. One study looking at female ski racers found that their ACL injury rate was six times that of their male counterparts.
Shoulder injuries. Falls are the most common cause of shoulder injuries, in addition to pole planting while skiing and performing aerial maneuvers while snowboarding. Common shoulder injuries for snow athletes are rotator cuff strains, glenohumeral dislocations, acromioclavicular separations and clavicle fractures.
Lower extremity fractures. Tibial (shin) fractures are the most common fracture in downhill skiing due to a direct impact or rotational force during a fall.
Spinal injuries. These can range from a strain to a rare and fatal spinal cord injury. Most spine injuries affect the cervical (neck) spine, followed by thoracic (mid-back) and lumbar (lower back). Skiers are more likely to sustain a cervical injury v. lumbar injury for snowboarders.
Head injuries. Studies show that snowboarders have a 50% higher rate of head and neck injury compared to skiers. This could be in part because snowboarders are less likely to wear a helmet. 22% of head injuries are severe enough to cause a loss of consciousness or clinical signs of concussion.
Wrist, hand, or thumb injuries. Among skiers, the most common upper extremity injury is a thumb ligament tear which occurs when the ski pole does not release from the hand during a fall. For snowboarders, the most common is a wrist or forearm fracture due to a natural instinct to fall on outstretched hands.
Tips to avoid these injuries
Studies show that physical conditioning has a significant impact on injury rates — that is, the better shape a skier is in, the less frequent his or her injuries. However, even the most fit can become hurt. In general, plan ahead, get in shape, check your equipment, warm up, and wear a helmet! Here are some more practical tips:
Common sense precautions. Most injuries occur after lunch and when fatigued. Stay adequately hydrated throughout the day and stop to rest at regular intervals even if you don’t feel thirsty or tired. Heed any warning signs for your own safety others’.
Parental oversight. Parents should help their children avoid terrain that is beyond their ability and invest in professional instruction. Be sure kids take frequent rest breaks with hydration. Caution children about going too fast and the serious risks of skiing/snowboarding out-of-bounds. Proper instruction and equipment. Instruction prior to getting on the slopes is important in preventing injuries. Instructors can educate beginners on the importance of a good warm-up and cool-down, properly fitted equipment, and safe skiing techniques. These same principles hold true for snowboarders. They can also determine at what point it is appropriate for beginners to progress to more advanced levels of terrain. Safe equipment is also critical to being safe.
Poorly functioning or improperly adjusted equipment is a frequent cause of injuries. Bindings that are too loose or too tight, as well as equipment that is improperly sized or used on improper terrain, can cause injury. Preventative equipment such as helmets can prevent disastrous and even fatal accidents, even though resorts do not universally require them. Only about 48% of U.S. skiers and snowboarders routinely wear helmets. In terrain parks, wrist guards and elbow and kneepads are also recommended. The use of protective equipment has been associated with a 43% decrease in the rate of head, neck, and face injuries.
Equipment checks. Your bindings should be no more than 3 to 4 years old and the release mechanism should be tested each year by a certified shop. Test with a self-release each day of skiing and make sure your bindings are clean. Regarding boots, check that the toe and heel of your boots have little wear which will allow proper release from the binding. Shorter skis are easier to turn and control but may be less stable at high speeds. Regardless, keep your ski edges in good condition to allow for proper turning and controlling your speed, especially on hard pack or icy conditions. Do not place your hands through the strap of a ski pole, rather, hold it alongside the pole.
Be aware of your surroundings. Always stay in control and remember that people ahead (downhill) of you have the right-of-way. When stopping or merging, watch for a safe place for you and others – always look uphill first.
If you do sustain an injury while skiing or snowboarding, call for help immediately. Following a visit to an emergency department, contact a qualified orthopedic specialist to ensure that you receive proper treatment for a complete recovery.