Skiing and snowboarding are wildly popular wintertime activities, and yet it does not bode well when you read of organizations like the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons who review and report on injuries sustained during these activities. For example, in 2018, that group said: “Both sports are responsible for a substantial number of musculoskeletal injuries treated annually by orthopaedic surgeons. Specific injury patterns and mechanisms associated with skiing and snowboarding have been identified. No anatomic location is exempt from injury, including the head, spine, pelvis, and upper and lower extremities.”
That doesn’t mean that everyone who enjoys snowboarding and skiing is injured, but it does mean that a lot of folks who spend time on the slopes will sustain some sort of injury. Whether it is serious or minor, the injuries (according to this large group of experts) often reflect or are related to the position of the limbs as the injury occurs. They also note that the individual’s level of expertise and the design of the equipment will also play a part in the injury.
On the upside, they also have found that knowledge of injury patterns has led to improved training and injury prevention measures – including equipment that can reduce the impact of even a tough tumble or severe incident on the slopes or run.
The team at Stop Sports Injuries has taken the time to identify and itemize the causes behind these injuries, and the most common injuries sustained. They say that although skiing and snowboarding are entirely safe sports, there are tens of thousands of unexpected injuries each year due to “improper preparation, varied snow conditions, or poor judgement,” and that many of the injuries sustained could have been “prevented by proper physical preparation, suitable and properly adjusted equipment, and common sense.”
They list the “most common issues that predispose people to injury” during skiing and snowboarding are:
- “Time skiing/snowboarding without rest
- Skiing/snowboarding above ability level
- Improper/faulty equipment
- Inadequate adjustment to altitude
- Skiing/snowboarding off trail or in closed areas
- Failure to observe posted warning signs by the mountain responsibility conduct code
- Poor skills or improper technique”
In this context, we see that they are correct and that a huge number of injuries could be avoided altogether. Yet, there are still a lot of injuries that happen because of a miniscule difference between the ideal position of the foot or ankle and the less ideal placement. It can be due to a long list of other factors.
The Most Common Injuries
What we’ve learned thus far is simple: Skiing and snowboarding often lead to injury. The injuries reflect the different positions of the limbs at the moment they occur, and experts are honing their abilities to treat and even prevent or limit injury and damage. That tells us that they probably have detectable patterns, and the professionals at VeryWell Fit say that these “sports injuries… tend to have slightly different injury patterns. Skiers are more likely to have knee injuries (from twisting motion during falls), and snowboarders tend to have more upper body injuries (as a result of falling on an outstretched hand),” and they also say that there “are also many injuries common to both types of winter athletes.”
Stop Sports Injuries explains that the widest range of skiing and snowboarding injuries is to the knee, while also involving other areas of the body. They list such areas such as the shoulder, lower extremities, spine, head, thumb/wrist/hand injuries, and more.
So, let’s take a look at those common injuries, what they are, if they can be avoided or reduced in severity, and what it takes to recover.
Skiers suffer a lot of knee injuries, which makes sense since the sport of skiing does ask for a great deal of turning, bending, and twisting at the knee. Lots of avid skiers who have been injured to one degree or another speak of the distinct “pop” heard at the moment something happens to the knee. The most common knee injuries do tend to pop, tear or somehow unseat key components in, around or supporting the knee. Those injuries include:
- ACL or PCL Injury – Also known as anterior and posterior cruciate ligament injuries, they occur when your feet are firmly planted (like being secured to skis), but your knee takes a twist. The injury can be a relatively minor tear, but it can also be so severe as to require surgery and reconstruction.
- Meniscus – The cartilage in the knee is prone to injury because it is in charge of making the movement in the knee smooth and fluid. The sudden and forceful twisting of skiing and sometimes snowboarding can put it under so much pressure that it tears.
The Shoulder (and Head and Neck)
Falling is usually apt to cause injury because of our natural reactions and responses to the incident. As an example, if you start to fall, what do you do? You put out your hands to stop or prevent damage to the head or face. During skiing, you might still try to do this, but will rarely have the time to enact any protective measures. That means you’ll harm the shoulder as well as sustain injuries to the head and neck. The most common among them are:
- Whiplash – While many see it as an auto accident sort of injury, any sudden stops (even if running around and playing sports) can hyperextend the spine and neck. It can vary in the way it occurs, but most cases require a physician’s intervention.
- Concussion – When you don’t have adequate time to reach out and slow the fall or lighten the impact, you whack the head. This can lead to concussion, and it can be prevented or lessened by the use of a helmet. However, it can be a serious injury if inadequate head protection is in use, and you must see a physician for care.
- Shoulder or clavicle fracture – The classic broken collarbone injury is associated with skiing and snowboarding, and requires a doctor’s evaluation and treatment.
- Rotator cuff tear – This is another shoulder injury that is caused in everyday life by repetitive movement and in skiing or snowboarding by a nasty fall.
- Dislocated shoulder – This is incredibly painful and requires immediate care. Putting the shoulder back into place is called reduction, and it will require different recuperative treatments, such as surgery. Should separation can also occur due to the use of an outstretched hand during any sort of fall.
Twisting, turning, and falling in both skiing and snowboarding may also lead to back injuries. Generally, the slicker the surface of the run or slope, the more likely a back injury will be. The common types include:
- Herniated disk – This is a fall-related injury and may require something as severe as surgery to correct.
- Pain – Lower back pain is usually due to overuse of muscles and joints. Pinched nerves and irritation (inflammation) can occur. Typically, no medical intervention is required, and rest, gentle movement, heat and massage will all help.
The Hand (and Wrist and Arm)
Again, just as you might harm the shoulder, neck or head during a fall, you can also harm the hands if you tumble while skiing or snowboarding. The most commonly sustained injuries include:
- Skiers Thumb – Also known as a ligament tear, it is a very typical sort of injury during a fall while skiing. Why? It usually occurs when the hand is tangled in the strap of the ski pole, resulting in a huge tug or pull away from the hand. This tears the ligament and makes it very hard for the thumb to grasp or tighten. Typically casting and splinting are the prescribed treatments, but surgical intervention may be required.
- Finger fracture – In line with skier’s thumb is a finger fracture. Reduction (placing the broken limb back into proper joint alignment) and surgery could be necessary depending upon the severity of the fracture, but casting or splinting may be all that is needed.
- Sprains – Wrist and finger/thumb sprains are also common and require only minimal intervention and treatment.
In addition to these very common issues, many skiers and snowboarders will endure a tremendous amount of “delayed” muscle soreness. In other words, they will do just fine as they enjoy a day (or more) on the slopes. Then, once they halt their activities, their muscles will become tender, sore and even difficult to use. This is easily remedied by doing some gentle warming up before a day of snowboarding or skiing, as well as a lot of stretching afterwards. A hot bath or shower before bed, and some over the counter NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as aspirin will often do the trick.
Of course, that leads to the top tactic, how to avoid or prevent injury: proper conditioning.
Get Into the Right Shape for Snowboarding and Skiing
As the VeryWell Fit team pointed out, the best “way to prevent skiing or snowboarding injuries is with proper conditioning programs that are begun before you hit the slopes… Beginners need lessons from a qualified instructor that will show you how to fall safely and reduce your risk of injury.”
And just how can you do proper conditioning? The best approach for helping yourself to prevent or avoid the most common injuries includes:
Knowing the most common reasons that may cause injury when snowboarding or skiing and taking steps to prevent problems. Remember that list we looked at a bit earlier? It said that injuries are most often due to fatigue, skiing above your skill level, faulty gear, dehydration, leaving the trail, ignoring codes of conduct, improper training, and so on. Accepting the blame for an injury is difficult, but you don’t have to if you pay attention to what statistics say, and take steps to ensure you don’t act like or become one. That means following the other conditioning tips from VeryWell Fit’s experts below.
- Endurance – Getting your cardio capabilities as healthy as possible ensures that you supply yourself with adequate oxygen, ensure you suffer no fatigue later in the day, and get enough blood and oxygen to the muscles. Interval training and cardio workouts are great for this.
- Strengthening – It is foolhardy to believe you don’t need to build strength to do well on the slopes. Work particularly on the muscles most commonly used during snowboarding and skiing – the quads in the legs (they protect your knees), the glutes, the thighs, the hamstrings, core (abs and back) and arms.
- Stretching – We noted that a good warmup before and after is important, but doing workouts that ensure your body has a general level of flexibility at all time is very beneficial.
Many also wonder if snowboarding or skiing injuries occur MORE in either sport. In other words, is one safer than the other? One group of medical and sports professionals took on that question and looked for an answer. The evidence says that overall snowboarding injuries occur most often and that they experience upper extremity injuries more than others. One of the experts consulted said that injury “rates in snowboarders have fluctuated over time but currently remain higher than in skiers…[and] wrist, shoulder, and ankle injuries are more common among snowboarders, while knee ligament injuries are more common in skiers. Injured snowboarders were significantly younger, less experienced, and more likely to be female than injured skiers or snowboard control participants.”
So, younger women unfamiliar with snowboarding seem to be the most likely group to sustain injuries, though people of all ages are injured during the ski and snowboard seasons every year.
Now that you know what might happen, we hope it is easier for you to properly prepare and enjoy a healthier winter sports season this year!