Athletic Training Column

Staying safe on the slopes

By Jenn Mroz | Dec 26, 2013
Photo by: File Jenn Mroz

These unseasonably warm temperatures aren’t enough to keep people off the slopes.  If the ski resorts can make snow, the skiers and snowboarders will be out in force this holiday break.  
Today I’ll talk about common skiing and snowboarding injuries, and offer some preventative advice to help make your time on the mountain trails safe and enjoyable.
I, myself, have never picked up down-hill skiing or snowboarding.  I could never get comfortable with the other people zipping past me, always worrying about colliding with someone at a high rate of speed.  But, according to Dr. Shannon Hunter, who is the medical advisor for the Ski Patrol at Cataloochee Ski Area, falls are the most common cause of injuries on the slopes, accounting for approximately 75-85 percent of injuries.  
“Collisions with objects, including other skiers, account for between 11 and 20 percent,” she says.
Skiing and snowboarding are two very different activities.  Skiing involves two individual skis that can move independently of each other, and ski poles are used.  Snowboarding is one board and no poles.  Because of these differences, each sport has specific injuries.
Knee injuries are more common with skiers vs snowboarders.  Given the lateral (or side-to-side) movements, injuries to the medial collateral ligament (or MCL) located on the inside of the knee are the most common, with ACL tears second. With each ski having the ability to move separately, unequal stress can be generated though the knees.  Another factor that contributes to knee injuries is the fact that the ankles are locked in rigid ski boots.  This is the same reason why I do not “spat” football cleats, which is taping an ankle over a player’s shoe.  
Removing any give between the footwear and the ankle causes any rotational stress to move up the extremity to the knee.  Why not in snowboarders?  “In snowboarding, both feet are strapped onto the same board and always point the same direction. This protects the knee from any twisting,” explains Dr. Hunter.
Upper extremity injuries are prevalent in both skiing and snowboarding.  The use or lack of use of poles doesn’t seem to have any advantage.  In skiers, falling on an outstretched arm while holding a ski pole can result in Skier’s Thumb.  “The thumb is suddenly pulled outward, injuring this joint,” said Hunter.  “The most vulnerable joint of the upper body (in skiers) is the thumb.”  For snowboarders, wrist fractures are extremely common.  Dr. Hunter elaborates, “When snowboarders fall, they land on their hands, shoulders, rear-ends, or heads.
The most typical snowboarding injury is a wrist fracture. There are also wrist sprains, elbow contusions, and dislocations. Throughout the winter season, to any students I see with short-arm casts, my first question is “Were you snowboarding?” and the usual answer is “Yes.”
Another potential injury, and maybe the most dangerous of them all, is a concussion.  Anyone who knows me knows this is one of my “soap-box” topics.  I’ve written about concussions previously, but it bears repeating.  A concussion is an injury to the brain.  Symptoms don’t always appear right away.  A second head injury while the brain is still healing can have devastating results.  
Most people associate concussions with football, but skiers and snowboarders are traveling at a higher rate of speed and not everyone wears a helmet while on the slopes.  In 2009, actress Natasha Richardson died after sustaining a head injury while skiing.  Dr. Hunter, “Protection from Head Injury is thankfully getting a lot of much needed press, snow sports are no exception.  I encourage adults and kids alike to go online and watch The Crash Reel, an amazing documentary about Kevin Pearce.  I already wore a helmet but when I had a chance to meet Kevin in person and see his story, I make a point to have it on at all times when skiing.”    
So, in addition to wearing a helmet, there are some other preventative measures you can take to make your experience safer.  Using proper equipment is essential.  “Good equipment that is properly fitted and maintained by a certified ski shop will minimize risks,” agrees Dr. Hunter.  She adds, “LESSONS, LESSONS, LESSONS!  We have some talented highly trained instructors at Cataloochee who can help increase one’s skiing/boarding ability and appreciation of varying  conditions.”
Dr. Hunter offers some final words.  “Come and spend some time on the mountain with us!  Cataloochee is a wonderful place to get your winter exercise, enjoy some fresh air and learn a new sport or improve if you don’t ski/board often.”
Maybe I need to give the slopes another try… Next time I’ll discuss safety tips for winter weather conditions, whether it’s walking on ice or shoveling snow.  
Until then, stay healthy!

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