Skiing and snowboarding trips are something many people and families look forward to over the holidays and during the winter months. But for most it’s not a year-round hobby, so people may overestimate their abilities, and instead of speeding gracefully down the slopes like stars Bode Miller or Lindsey Vonn, they can end up more like Slovenian skier Vinko Bogataj in the “agony of defeat” from ABC’s Wide World of Sports.
Lonnie Douglas, M.D., is chief of Sports Medicine and an orthopedic surgeon with University of Louisville Physicians, and an assistant professor at the UofL School of Medicine. A former football player and athlete himself, he specializes in sports injuries, and says it’s not uncommon for weekend or holiday warriors to end up in the emergency room after a fall on the slopes. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be safe, and there are ways to minimize your risk.
He said the biggest thing is to be realistic about your abilities, and not get overconfident. “People try to ski above their level. They get brave on the bunny slopes, then they think they can head for the Black Diamond,” he said.
For the uninitiated, Black Diamond slopes are difficult with steep gradients, and they are often full of bumps. A Double Black Diamond is the most difficult rating and should be skied by experts only. If you get on one of these and you’re not an expert – well, you were warned.
According to a review article published in a January 2018 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, the number of skier and snowboarder injuries continues to rise. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates more than 140,000 people were treated in hospitals, doctors’ offices and emergency rooms in 2015 for skiing and snowboarding-related injuries.
“It might seem like common sense, but don’t ski above your level of comfort, and wear proper safety equipment, such as a helmet, gloves and goggles,” Douglas said. “Always the helmet.” A broken wrist or twisted knee can most likely be fixed, but a brain injury is much more serious.
The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons says taking lessons is especially important for new skiers, and learning how to fall correctly can reduce the risk of injury.
Douglas said it’s also best to pick a time of day to ski when it’s less crowded, if you can. “It has happened on crowded slopes where a skier has been struck by someone else moving much faster than them.”
A wide range of injuries can occur, with injuries to ligaments more common than fractures. Douglas said the majority fall into two groups: Knee injuries, particularly to the anterior cruciate ligament due to twisting; and because skiers and snowboarders often put their arms out to break a fall, a broken wrist or shoulder injury such as a fracture, separation or dislocation. A separated shoulder is an injury to the ligaments that hold your collarbone to your shoulder blade.
Douglas said injuries to the upper body can be worse as that part “has an extra second to accelerate before hitting the ground.”
Skiers who fall on an outstretched hand while holding a ski pole can get “skier’s thumb,” an injury to the ligament that connects the bones of the thumb together.
Snowboarding injures tend to be more common and severe than skiing injures, Douglas said, as ski bindings are designed to come loose in the event of a fall, with the skis flying away, while a snowboard remains attached. With the snowboard strapped on, those who fall often suffer twisting or rotational injuries to the knees, as well as a broken wrist or separated shoulder. He said snowboarding injuries are more likely to require surgery or hospitalization.
Injuries to novice skiers also tend to be less severe than for those who are more advanced, Douglas said. “More experienced skiers are also less likely to take a doctor’s advice.”
Whether novice or experienced, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons recommends the following to stay safe on the slopes:
- Maintain fitness. Be in good physical condition when you set out. If you are out of shape, select runs carefully and gradually build your way up to more challenging trails. Many ski injuries happen at the end of the day, when people are tired and try to get in one last run.
- Warm up. Research has shown cold muscles are more prone to injury. Warm up with jumping jacks or running or walking in place for 3 to 5 minutes. Take a couple of slow ski runs before moving on to something more difficult.
- Even mild levels of dehydration can affect physical ability and endurance. Drink plenty of water before, during, and after.
- Know safety rules. Understand and abide by rules of the ski resort. Know general safety rules of skiing, such as how to safely stop, merge and yield to other skiers.
- Learn ski lift safety. Before your outing, learn how to properly get on and off a lift.
Ensure Appropriate Equipment
- 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.
- Boots and bindings. Buy or rent boots and bindings that have been set, adjusted, maintained and tested by a ski shop that follows American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM) standards.
- Check the binding of each ski before skiing. Bindings must be properly adjusted to your height, weight and skiing ability.
- Safety gear. Wear appropriate protective gear such as a helmet and goggles. Helmets are sport-specific, so do not wear a bike helmet on the slopes. Ski helmets should be worn.
Ensure a Safe Environment
- Stay on marked trails and avoid potential avalanche areas.
- Watch out for rocks and patches of ice on trails.
- Pay attention to warnings about upcoming storms and severe drops in temperature. Make adjustments for icy conditions, deep snow, powder and wet snow.
Prepare for Injuries
- Ski or snowboard with partners and stay within sight of each other. If you get ahead of your partner, stop and wait.
- Seek shelter and medical attention immediately if you, or anyone with you, is experiencing hypothermia or frostbite. Make sure everyone is aware of proper procedures for getting help if injuries occur.