We Fall Hard For Winter Sports

How to Prevent Injuries on the Slopes, Ice this Season

With winter weather upon us, I will see many patients in my office with orthopedic injuries from the spills and thrills of winter sports. Certain winter injuries are so recognizable, we have sport-specific names for them, like skier’s thumb or snowboarder’s ankle. According to statistics from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, skiing, snowboarding, sledding, and skating injuries accounted for 246,000 doctors’ visits in 2015. That translates to a lot of pain, expense, time off work, and rehabilitation. What makes winter sports so risky, and how can all of us who live in snow country try our best to avoid injury? Here are a couple thoughts:

When you fall, you fall hard. The ground is frozen, the ice is cold and hard, and the most peaceful fluffy white snow can hide dangerous rocks and tree stumps in your path. It’s a whole different world compared to the green outfields and grassy fairways of summer.

For example, dislocated or broken elbows often happen in the winter months because you stretch out your hands to break a fall or keep from crashing into something. Skier’s thumb happens when a skier falls and bends his or her hand back to keep a grip on the ski pole. This causes the ligament in the thumb joint to tear and, in some cases, the phalanx (thumb bone) to fracture. Snowboarder’s ankle is a fracture of the Talus bone located above the heel bone on the outside of the ankle. Mild ankle sprains need ice and elevation, but fractures usually need a cast and at least six weeks to several months of healing.

Warm-up exercises are more important than ever before cold-weather sports to prevent severe injuries. Cold muscles, tendons, and ligaments are more vulnerable to injury. Increasing the temperature of muscles and connective tissue makes them more mobile and elastic. Move your body in ways that mimic the activity you are about to begin, such as your ski pole stroke, squats, or leg stretches. Don’t do enough to get hot and sweaty; rather, practice fluid motions that optimize your brain for these movements. This increases the coordination between your brain and body before you hit the slopes or rink.

Get your gear on. Winter sports gear tends to include two components: safety equipment and clothes that keep you warm—but not too warm. If you are skiing or snowboarding, always wear a snow sports helmet and other appropriate protective gear, including goggles and gloves.

It sounds simple, but make sure your shoes, boots, or skates fit. Wear properly-fitting footwear that provides warmth, dryness, and good ankle support. When your feet get sore or cold, you alter your stride and set yourself up for trips, falls, and back injuries, not to mention a bad mood. Wear several layers of light, loose and water- and wind-resistant clothing for warmth and protection. Layering allows you to accommodate your body's constantly changing temperature.

Check that your sports equipment is working properly prior to use. Ski bindings, skate blades, helmet buckles, pole straps, and gloves that allow a proper grip are a few things to check before you amp up your speed.

Learn how to fall. It’s a lot of fun to travel to the slopes in a big group. But if you (or your companions) have never gone downhill skiing before, do sign up for a lesson (or several) from a qualified instructor. Aside from having a lot more fun, you will also learn how to fall correctly and safely to reduce the risk of injury. Generally, it’s advisable to fall to the side and not to brace yourself with your arms, as this can cause fractures; however, the top priority is always protecting your head. Remember to wear that helmet!

Stay alert to safely participate in high-energy, high-speed winter sports. Know when to take a break. Stop when you are tired or in pain because your coordination and response times go downhill, increasing your risk for injury. Time in the lodge or gathered around the fire is part of the fun, too. Take a break to warm up, get something to eat, get hydrated, or sneak in a short snooze. Winter is beautiful in Wisconsin. Take care and stay safe in the snow.

Clay Canaday, DO, is an orthopedic surgeon with ThedaCare Orthopedic Care in Shawano.