8 Ways to avoid common winter sports injuries

December 1, 2018

Summer is over and winter is officially here, and you know what that means—snow! If you’re one of the 13.91 million skiers or 7.6 million snowboarders in the US, that means it’s time to hit the slopes. Whether you’re a seasoned mountain pro or braving the bunny hill for the first time, these can be dangerous sports. In fact, Johns Hopkins Medicine found that approximately 600,000 ski-related injuries occur each year. So, what can you do to have fun and stay safe this winter? Orlin & Cohen’s resident black diamond champion Dr. John Feder weighs in:

1. Condition Your Body

Mountain sports can be a lot of fun for people of all ages, but that doesn’t change the fact that these intense sports put your body through tremendous strain. You wouldn’t participate in a triathlon without training first, so you shouldn’t jump on that lift without conditioning your body with strength and agility exercises to prime muscles you don’t typically use. Lateral plyometric jump exercises are particularly helpful to strengthen calf and ankle muscles, which are vital to successful ski jumps.

2. Combat Altitude Sickness

Exposure to altitudes higher than you’re used to can be physically jarring, especially when you add in physical exertion. Common symptoms of altitude sickness include nausea, headaches, shortness of breath, and difficulty performing physical activities. Combat this by getting a good night’s rest, staying hydrated, and taking ibuprofen. If you’re still experiencing symptoms, consult a doctor and request a prescription for Diamox, a tablet that treats altitude sickness. If all else fails, get to a lower elevation.

3. Practice on Small Jumps First

A bad jump landing is more than embarrassing—it’s a fast way to sprain or tear your anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), a common, but painful, knee injury that may require physical therapy or orthopedic surgery. Practice your landings on smaller jumps first, always putting your weight forward, not on the back where force is transmitted through your calves to your knees.

4. Don’t Stand Up to Falling

Even Shaun White and Lindsey Vonn fall; it’s part of the sport. But what matters most is how you fall. Don’t try to stop an inevitable fall by standing up straight, this could lead to a phenomenon known as “phantom foot,” which shifts your weight backwards, just like an improper jump landing. Another common fall injury is “skier’s thumb,” which occurs when you instinctively stretch your hands out while still holding the ski poles. Prevent this by keeping your pole straps secure so you can easily let go of them in case of a fall. The best thing you can do when you’re about to fall is to simply allow your body to go with the momentum and fall as safely as possible. Then get back up again! If you have injured yourself after a fall, contact ski patrol or ask someone to alert them.

5. Wear a Helmet

Before you resist wearing a helmet, remember that head injuries account for 20 percent of skiing and snowboarding injuries. Not all snow is soft and powder-fresh; it can often be densely packed or mixed with ice in poor conditions. Even if the mountain is ideal, there are other people to be aware of and some inevitable falls to prepare for. Protect yourself by wearing a lightweight helmet. Make sure it fits properly—over your hat, just above your eyebrows.

6. Keep Your Ski Bindings Low

It’s a common misconception that high binding settings will reduce premature ski releases and stop knee injuries. However, lower is actually better. Your bindings are set based on height, weight, and skiing ability (so resist the temptation to shave a few pounds off your weight or claim false expertise at the shop). The bindings should be lowered until you can ski normally without your boots releasing. Remember, you want your boots to release in a fall or you risk a painful ACL tear. Ensuring your bindings are always set correctly is as vital as maintaining all of your other equipment, which should be tuned up regularly by a professional.

7. Respect the Sun

Don’t make the mistake of thinking the sun can’t harm you when it’s cold outside, especially if you’re at a higher altitude. You should still take the same precautions you would in the summer and apply a strong sunscreen to any exposed skin, as well as SPF lip protection. The reflection of sun off of snow is a danger in itself, so add a pair of UV goggles to your equipment.

8. Avoid Frostbite

It’s easy to recognize when you’re dangerously cold in everyday situations, but not as simple when you’re engaged in a sport that increases adrenaline and requires significant physical exertion. That’s why it’s vital to always hit the slopes with a partner and to dress properly for the day. This includes a moisture-wicking thermal or lined base layer under a layer of warm pants and a sweater or sweatshirt, followed by socks designed for skiing, snow pants, a snow jacket, glove liners and gloves, a neck warmer, and a thermal hat or full face balaclava mask. You and your partner should stay hydrated and take frequent breaks to warm up with a hot cup of coffee or hot chocolate. If one of you starts to feel a prickling sensation followed by numbness, it’s time to head back to the lodge and determine if you need medical care.

Sometimes, no matter how careful we are, accidents happen. If that happens to you the next time you hit some fresh powder, contact the Orlin & Cohen Orthopedic Group to discuss treatment with a board-certified subspecialist.