Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes
CHICAGO — When the temperature drops and snow begins to fall, many people can't wait to hit the slopes or ice rink. Winter fun is on their minds, not injury. Yet if you don't thoughtfully prepare for your favored activity, it's easy to have a mishap.
Nearly 200,000 people were injured in 2018 while participating in winter sports, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. These injuries largely came from snow skiing, snowboarding, ice skating, sledding and tobogganing. Sprains, strains, dislocations and fractures were common but also concussions and other head injuries.
In fact, head injuries make up 20% of the roughly 600,000 ski- and snowboarding-related injuries that occur annually across North America, according to a study published in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery.
"Certainly, we worry the most about head injuries," said Dr. Brian Cole, an orthopedic surgeon at Chicago's Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush. "Those can be pretty significant in settings where there's uncontrolled speed and you hit a tree or light post."
A lot of head injuries can be prevented simply by wearing a helmet, something younger people in particular may be reluctant to do, said Dr. Scott Smith, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist at Texas Orthopedics, Sports and Rehabilitation Associates in Austin. "But it's worth it, because you are going to fall down."
Whether it's a helmet, skis or skates, it's essential to check your gear before heading out to make sure it's in good condition. Proper winter attire is key, as is having plenty of water on hand to combat dehydration — something that often goes unnoticed in winter.
Another smart practice is to exercise with a buddy instead of going solo. This way, someone will be there to assist you should you be injured. Be aware of weather and terrain, Cole said, especially early in the season when temperature fluctuations can affect snow and ice.
It's also important to do some dynamic stretching before you begin your activity to warm up muscles, and to know your abilities so you don't tackle a hill or bust a move that's beyond your capabilities. Take rest breaks and stop before you're overtired.
"The time you're most likely to get injured skiing is on your last run," said Dr. Erin Nance, an orthopedic surgeon with Nance MD in New York. "That's always the case because you're fatigued. And when you're fatigued, you don't pay as much attention to your technique."
Since so many winter sports can result in spills, you should learn how to fall properly. Mainly, don't stick out your hands to try and break your fall, said Nance, who specializes in hand surgery. "You want to tuck and roll so your upper body takes the brunt of the fall," she said. "You're less likely to have a catastrophic ligament tear or fracture this way."
Common injuries by age and sex
Some winter sports injuries are more common in people of a certain sex or age. Cole sees a lot of sledding injuries in his younger patients, snowmobiling injuries in middle-aged men and downhill skiing injuries in women, especially torn ACLs in the knee.
Kids who go downhill skiing tend to suffer spiral tibia fractures at the top of their ski boots, Nance said. While their feet and ankles are stabilized in the ski boots, the area just above remains unprotected. When snowboarding, a common injury among children is a growth-plate fracture in the hand, especially in those not wearing wrist guards, which she recommends. Beginning snowboarders sans wrist guards are four times more likely to incur a wrist injury than those wearing them, according to one study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine.
Older adults tend to break bones in winter sports stumbles, the surgeons said, while younger adults suffer more strains and sprains. When downhill skiing, one of the most common injuries adults incur is skier's thumb, a torn ligament. While skier's thumb isn't a serious injury, per se, it can turn into one if left untreated.
"If you get diagnosed right away, it's a simple ligament repair," Nance said. "But if you don't get it checked out and six weeks later it hurts to lift your cup of coffee — the most common complaint I hear — now you need a ligament reconstruction. Now you have a chronic problem."
So how do you know when to seek medical attention after a tumble? If a joint is swollen or painful after a fall, see your physician, Cole said. Ditto if a joint is numb, tingling or has acute weakness.
After a blow to the head, watch for dizziness, visual disturbances, light intolerance, loss of memory and headaches, he said. All of those indicate you should seek medical care.
Here are additional sport-specific safety tips:
Skiing and snowboarding
Take lessons if you're new to the sport.
Wear a well-maintained and well-fitted helmet, plus protective eyewear.
Be aware of changing weather and snow conditions and other skiers.
Ski only on designated trails, Smith said. "If you ski outside of the boundaries and get hurt, then no one knows you're there," he said.
Skate in the same direction as the other skaters so you don't create a hazard.
Watch the ice for cracks, holes and debris.
Don't chew gum or eat candy while skating.
Make sure rental skates are the proper size, Nance said. "You need the proper-sized skate and tied up really tight, as everything starts with stability," she said. "Adults should be tying kids' skates for them."
Sled feet-first, not head-first. Sitting up is better, too.
Sled in an area free of obstacles such as trees or fences.
Watch for potential hazards hidden under the snow.
Roll off the sled if a crash is imminent.
Be alert, even when you're not sledding. "I often see bystanders not paying attention, and a sledder comes down and takes their legs out from them," Nance said. "It happens at least once a day."