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Skiing, skating and sledding can be great wintertime fun. But the elements that bring the greatest thrill to these sports—gravity, speed and ice—can also make them quite dangerous.
Sports injuries, in general, are the most common mishap sending people to the emergency room, second only to household accidents. In fact, for some age groups, sports injuries are the #1 reason for ER visits year-round—although winter sports present their share of unique hazards.
By government estimates, over 3 million Americans hurt themselves pursuing winter sports each year. Of that total, 200,000 become injured seriously enough to need medical attention.
On the Slopes
With high speeds often involved, downhill skiing and snowboarding generate nearly 130,000 injuries requiring medical attention each year, nationwide. And ski resorts convenient to the Washington, D.C., metro area tend to be both icy and crowded. In icier conditions, skis become harder to control, especially for weekend warriors, and falls occur more frequently. Collisions with other skiers can result in injuries as well.
For skiers at almost all skill levels, falling can seem as much a part of the sport as staying upright. Unfortunately, falling injury-free is probably more about luck than skill: “learning to fall” comes from hours of experience that many weekend warriors never achieve.
However, there are things you can do to decrease your odds of a break or major joint injury:
- First, be honest about your skills. If you’re a beginning or intermediate skier, don’t jump on the black diamond run expecting to handle it like a pro. To stay safe, ski at your skill level.
- When renting equipment, state your exact skill level to the ski staffer who is setting up your skis and bindings. If you’re less skilled on the slopes and more likely to fall, you’ll want those bindings kept loose. Tumbling down a mountain with skis firmly fastened to your feet can place unnatural forces on your ankles, knees and hips. Ankles are particularly prone to sprains and breaks. So, the skis should pop off the second you fall to avoid or lessen injury.
- Similarly, shoulder injuries can be caused by ski poles. Dislocations, rotator cuff injuries and broken collarbones are common. When a ski pole tethers your arm to the ground, forces on joints can be magnified. Although you can’t completely eliminate risk, consider not using wrist straps if your poles have them. This will give you a better chance of releasing the pole when you fall. Better to spend time looking for a lost pole than winding up in surgery.
- Keep aware of your surroundings. A crowded hill creates opportunity for collisions, so avoid larger crowds whenever possible. Know where the trees, ski lifts and other objects are. When the run gets icy, tone down your speed—even seasoned skiers can have trouble navigating icy turns. Losing control can easily escalate to a crash.
Gravity, speed and icy conditions can make skiing, skating and sledding a thrill. But the thrill can result in injury. Dr. Evan Argintar has winter sports safety tips. @MedStarWHC via https://bit.ly/3hqsG2I
On the Ice
Ice is a hazard that keeps orthopedic surgeons busy throughout each winter. In the U.S. alone, about 48,000 ice skating injuries need medical attention every year. Although skiing is a lot faster than skating, good conditions on the slopes can give you a nice powder to cushion your fall. Not so in skating, where the ice is always hard and slippery—the perfect scenario for falls that cause fractures.
When we fall, we instinctively extend our arms to break the fall and protect the head. This puts the wrist in danger of fracture. Ankles are also at risk from rotational forces, when the skate blade stays put as the leg rotates.
- Again, the best way to prevent getting hurt: know your limits. If you’re not yet confident on skates, take it slow. Stay near the wall or skate with a more experienced buddy.
- As in skiing, crowds can be problematic here, too. Avoid collisions by staying aware of the surroundings.
- Don’t exceed safe speeds, even if you’re a skilled skater.
- Fortunately, most skaters fall on their rear ends, which provides adequate padding for most of us. We don’t see a lot of orthopedic injuries to that area—bruising is more common. So, opt to land on your rear when possible. In fact, if you moderate your speed, you’ll naturally fall that way.
On the Sledding Hill
For most, sledding is probably the winter sport you engaged in at the earliest age. But even if you’ve been sledding for years, it can still be hazardous. In fact, around 22,000 serious injuries occur due to sledding, tobogganing and tubing activities each year.
- Most of the sledding injuries we see happen with kids. Collisions can cause problems, particularly when a child on the sledding run is hit by another sledder and suffers a leg, arm or ankle injury.
- Head and neck injuries are less common, but can be catastrophic, especially if the sledder strikes a tree. It’s best to sled downhill feet-first. And helmets are a must. Fortunately, kids are accustomed to them these days—although you may need to remind them.
- Again, know the surroundings, and be sure you and your kids take note of any obvious perils. Kids should stay out of the sled run when they’re not sledding.
- Because most sleds have no brakes, and saucers and tubes have no mechanical steering, be sure kids know how to roll off if they spot trouble ahead.
- Especially avoid sledding near a busy road or parking lot. Cars and sleds don’t mix, and being struck by a vehicle becomes a tragic reality for a number of sledders every year.
Prep Before You Go
Wintertime weekend warriors often hit a sport hard without preparing. You’re more likely to get hurt when you’re stressing muscles and tendons that don’t typically get pushed in the course of everyday activities.
Winter sports are demanding, so get in condition before you play. Devote attention to the calves, hamstrings, hip abductor muscles and iliotibial (IT) band—the long piece of connective tissue joining the hip, knee and shinbone. You can work each of these areas safely at home, without special equipment. Of course, if you’re recovering from an injury or unsure about a technique, speak with your doctor before attempting any of these sports.
And, if you’re at a beginning level, take a lesson. Lessons can help you have better control and learn to fall more safely.
Get Help Sooner, Not Later
Most of us spend three-quarters of the year not engaged in winter sports, so the first few times on the slopes, rink or sledding hill are likely to result in some level of aches and stiffness. How can a weekend warrior know if pain is serious enough to warrant medical attention?
In the case of a fracture or other serious orthopedic injury, it will clearly cause the athlete severe pain or the inability to move a joint or put weight on a leg or ankle. These injuries typically command medical attention at the scene, from the ski patrol or other emergency responders trained in outdoor first aid.
But not every orthopedic injury presents so dramatically. You may be in trouble without knowing it. If your pain and discomfort last longer than a day or two, worsen or give you an uneasy feeling, trust your gut and seek medical attention.
In fact, the sooner you get attention, the better. We can fix almost anything, even an old injury that’s scarred or badly healed. But the longer you wait, the tougher the road to recovery can be.
How We Can Help
MedStar Washington Hospital Center offers orthopedic experts who can treat a range of cases—from the simple to the most complex—with precision and efficiency. In rare cases where an injury is unusually complicated, our team is supported by seasoned specialists in trauma care, vascular health and plastic surgery who can help as well. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have staggered appointments and rearranged waiting rooms to maintain social distancing so patients can get the care they need in the safest possible environment.
Remember the common-sense safety tips for all winter sports:
- Warm up and stretch appropriately for the sport before you exert yourself.
- Wear a helmet, especially when speed and ice are involved.
- Know your limits.
- Take frequent breaks, hydrate and stop when you’re tired.
Now get out and enjoy the winter weather safely!