How to Stay Safe on the Slopes This Winter

Winter is upon us, and that can mean a cup of hot chocolate next to a fire while kicking your feet up, but for some, it can also mean enjoying winter sports and activities like skiing or snowboarding. Heading down a mountain slope can be exhilarating but it can also be dangerous, potentially turning an enjoyable vacation into a trip to the emergency room.

Thankfully, there are some things you can do to reduce your risk of injury. We spoke to George Lebus, M.D., orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine physician on the medical staffs at Texas Health Fort Worth and Orthopedic Specialty Associates, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice, to learn about common winter sports injuries and how to prevent them.

“Skiing and snowboarding have seen an astronomical rise in popularity, and, as such, we have seen more and more patients who have sustained injuries while doing these activities,” Lebus says. “You see these incredible athletes on TV and it really can create a spark for people to go and try these sports, and they’re great. I think the more people that get involved, the better. I would never discourage anyone from participating in them; I just I think you need to be prepared and know the risks, and get the proper training.”

In an 18-year study, researchers from the University of Vermont College of Medicine in Burlington looked at skiing and snowboarding injury records at a resort in Vermont and recorded a total of 2,260 non-serious injuries per 2,088 snowboarders and 9,465 injuries among 8,645 skiers. Of these injuries, wrist injuries accounted for more than a quarter of all snowboarding injuries, compared to just three percent of skiing injuries. In contrast, 17 percent of all skiing injuries were anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) sprains, compared to less than two percent of snowboarding injuries—stats that don’t necessarily shock Lebus.

“No area of the body is exempt from injury doing these activities, unfortunately, but classically, knee injuries are particularly associated with skiing, especially ACL tears, as well as what we call tibial plateau fractures, which is a fracture of the tibia right below the knee joint,” he explains. “Snowboarders more commonly injure their wrists, as they tend to fall back on their arms or their wrists.”

Lebus adds that other common injuries include shoulder dislocations, clavicle fractures, hand injuries—particularly something called “skier’s thumb,” where you can tear a ligament in the thumb—and foot and ankle injuries.

Rare but serious injury can also occur involving the head and spine, but Lebus says that better equipment and the increased use of helmets have decreased the overall incidence of these types of injuries.

The most recent helmet usage data indicates that skiers and snowboarders understand the importance of helmets. According to the 2011/12 NSAA National Demographic Study, 67 percent of skiers and snowboarders wore helmets, up 10 percent from the 2010/11 season, and up 171 percent from the 2002/03 season, when only 25 percent of skiers and snowboarders wore helmets.

“It seemed like a helmet was a rare sight even about ten years ago,” Lebus adds. “Now, if you’ve had the chance to go skiing or snowboarding recently, it seems like the majority of people are wearing helmets. I think it’s a great thing; it’s a testament to how well they can protect you and also to the fact that they’re pretty comfortable.”

Outside of helmets, Lebus says checking your equipment often and making sure everything is up to par can prevent injury more than many may think.

“We know that when ski bindings don’t release completely, for example, the incidence of ACL tears goes up quite a bit,” he says. “And that’s an easy check, something that you can do. If you own your own equipment, make sure it’s good to go, and if you’re renting, make sure you fully understand how the equipment is supposed to work and that it’s all tuned up.”

Lebus understands that precautions are just that, an attempt at preventing injury, not a 100 percent guarantee that your winter vacation will not result in a doctor’s visit. But he insists that if you feel like something is not right or if you’ve injured yourself and are “just keeping an eye on it,” you need to make an appointment.

“Most of the time, I think if you injure yourself, you may know about it, but not every time,” he says. “I would always advise getting checked out if you think you might have injured yourself, whether right away or even a few days later.”

Whether you’re a regular snow bunny or hitting the slopes for the first time, Lebus says getting to know your equipment, receiving the appropriate training, and wearing protective gear are great at preventing or lessening the severity of an injury.

“I’ve seen excellent skiers and excellent snowboarders sustain pretty significant injuries, so I think it’s more than just a matter of skill. Snow sports, in general, are incredibly fun, but they are dangerous,” he says. “I always like to tell people to live their life. You never don’t want to do something just because you’re potentially afraid, but at the same time you should know the risks—I think that’s the important part of it.”

Lebus recently was featured on a Texas Health Out Loud podcast, discussing how to safely enjoy the slopes. Check out that podcast below:

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