Health Blog

Avoiding Winter Sports Injuries

Ice Skater

Winter sports are a great way to stay active during colder months, as long as you participate with common sense and caution. Do not take on more than your skill level will safely allow, and wear protective equipment to ensure you can enjoy your sport for the full winter season!

Before heading out on a ski vacation, most people prepare by reserving a room, booking a flight, packing their winter clothes and their skis. However, if you do not prepare your body, you might end up spending more time in the doctor’s office than on the slopes.

More than 440,000 people were treated at hospitals, doctor’s offices, and emergency rooms for winter sports-related injuries in 2010, according to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission. For skiers alone, it is estimated that the injury rates are approximately 2.5-3.0 per 1000 skier-days. Women and children appear to be at slightly higher risk than men.

Here are some statistics:

  • 58,500 injuries from ice skating
  • 91,000 injuries from sledding and tobogganing
  • 144,000 injuries from snow skiing
  • 148,000 injuries from snowboarding

Common winter sports injuries include sprains, strains, dislocations and fractures. Many of these injuries happen at the end of the day, when people overexert themselves to finish that one last run. A majority of these injuries can easily be prevented if you prepare for your sport, stop when you are fatigued and stay alert for change of conditions and other people around you.

Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind when out on the slopes.

  1. Keep in shape and strengthen the lower extremities and torso before the winter season starts.
  2. Warm up thoroughly before participating in your winter activity. Cold muscles, tendons, and ligaments are more vulnerable to injury.
  3. Wear appropriate protective gear, including goggles, helmets, gloves and padding.
  4. Check that equipment is working properly prior to use.
  5. Learn how to fall correctly and safely so you can reduce the risk of injury by falling on your side or buttocks and rolling rather than bracing yourself with your hands.
  6. Avoid participating in sports when you are in pain or exhausted.

(American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), December 2011)

Understanding a few common injuries may help you avoid them and get the most out of your season.

Knee and Ankle Injuries:
Downhill skiing and snowboarding can be quite a rush but a bad fall can cause a substantial injury to your knees and ankles. An ankle sprain can be more painful and take longer to heal than an actual fracture at the ankle. Of the nearly 144,000 skiing injuries reported per year, anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears are the most common. Tears or ruptures of the Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) or Medial Collateral Ligament (MCL) of the knee are some of the most debilitating injuries and often require surgery. To help protect yourself form these injuries, have your board bindings inspected frequently and be sure that your footwear is sized properly.

Finger, Hand and Wrist Injuries:
When skiing or skating, it is very easy to break your wrist or fingers. The straps of the ski pole could lead to an injury to your wrist or a tear to the ligaments of your thumb. Skier’s thumb is a common injury that occurs when skiers fall awkwardly on their hands while holding a ski pole. This results in an ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) tear which is a ligament on the inside of the thumb. To prevent this, make sure your ski strap stays below your wrist. Many UCL tears in the thumb joint are treated by immobilizing the thumb for four to six weeks while the ligament heals.

Lower Back Injuries:
Cold weather constricts muscles and diminishes flexibility. Failing to warm up properly and overworking your body may result in back pain. Improper posture can also stress the back resulting in a strain or sprain. A fall can damage vertebrae or compress the discs in your back, leading to a more serious back injury. Keeping the back and abdominal muscles strong before you start your winter activities will give you the muscular endurance you will need for a full day of fun in the snow.

To prevent ACL tears, you can start by jumping rope, then progress to jumping side to side and back and forth over a pillow or small stool. Stepping sideways up and down on a step is another great way to strengthen the muscles around the knees. Properly performed lunges and squats are excellent fundamental exercises for the back and lower extremities. Playing basketball or tennis improve your strength in lateral movements while also familiarizing the body with skiing motions. Another good idea is to participate in a ski conditioning class at your gym.

Working with an MTI physical therapist can also help you avoid a winter injury. They will begin by evaluating your trunk and lower extremity strength, endurance, balance and flexibility to diagnose and identify any muscle imbalances that could predispose you to injury as we head closer to the holiday season. Then they will develop a customized treatment plan to help you prepare for the winter sports season. Contact one of our seven clinics to set up an appointment and start your winter sports season on the right path.

Wendy Lavin, PT, MPT, MOMT
Physical Therapist
MTI Physical Therapy – Fremont

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