stay safe on the slopes

Stay Safe on the Slopes

Carolyn B. loves to ski every winter, but admits to experiencing some spills on the slopes. “I have had a couple of wipeouts,’” she says. “Nothing hurt but my pride.” Her worst injuries – a head bump or a torn muscle in her shoulder after a ski-lift snafu – luckily never amounted to broken bones or a trip to the hospital, but Carolyn is aware that she, along with her fellow ski bunnies, can always ride more safely. 

The good news is that skiing and snowboarding are relatively safe activities by United States measures. “Injuries are relatively rare despite the perceived risk,” explains Virtua orthopedic surgeon Brad Bernardini, MD. “Skiers are likely to suffer one injury for every 333 days of skiing, and the average U.S. skier only skis 14 days per season.” That said, injuries do occur, with knee injuries the most common. Knee ligament injuries have been on the rise with an increase of 233 percent between 1972 and 1995. Shoulder strains, sprains, and fractures along with “skiers thumb” – a sprain of the ulnar collateral ligament – are the next most common injuries in skiers.

Snowboarders, on the other hand, are most likely to suffer a wrist injury, most commonly in the right wrist. Fractures and sprains in the humerus (the long bone in the upper arm), shoulder injuries in the left arm, and knee injuries in the front leg are also notable to snowboarding. In the case of snowboarding, again, beginners are most likely to get hurt. “There's an especially high rate of wrist fractures in first time boarders,” notes Dr. Bernardini.

Keeping yourself and your family safe on the slopes this winter comes down to some pretty common factors. “Risky behavior, poorly fitted rental equipment and borrowed equipment have been shown to play a role in the increased injury rates,” says Dr. Bernardini. “Beginners are most commonly affected by injuries, but some studies show the biggest risk-takers are adolescent and teen boys younger than 17. There's also another peak of injuries in athletes over age 26.”

While conditions do play a role in an uptick in injuries, it’s surprisingly not the icy, slippery trails that are most likely to send you to the emergency room. “New, and therefore deeper, snow is more likely to result in higher injury rates than less snow or icy conditions,” notes Dr. Bernardini. “Most people don’t know how to handle deeper powder snow and therefore the injury rates are higher because there are more falls.”

To make sure a nasty injury doesn’t ruin your winter fun, remember to pack the right safety equipment. For skiers, this includes a helmet and properly fitted boots with the correct setting on the bindings. Quick-release straps on ski poles – or not using straps at all – correlate with a lower risk of skiers thumb. Boarders, especially first timers or beginners, should wear wrist guards. This is the single most important piece of equipment, besides a helmet, for the boarder, and many glove companies are now making gloves with built-in wrist guards for convenience. 

“If renting equipment, make sure that it’s set and fitted by a professional,” says Dr. Bernardini. “Furthermore, don’t overstate your skiing ability on the rental equipment application. This could result in the release mechanism being set too high, which makes the ski release under higher loads, and this contributes to increased risk for knee injury.” For snowboarders, boot and binding fit is still important for comfort, but not as important for function because they don’t release on the slopes.

While skiing is a fun way to get out of the house and so something as a family, it’s important to teach kids to avoid risk-taking behavior and learn proper technique from a young age. Kids grow fast – and outgrow expensive ski equipment fast – so it’s tempting to borrow someone else’s equipment. To ensure their safety, make sure your child’s equipment is properly fitted and up to date. If you need to save money, go with rental skis, boots and poles. 

Carolyn's years of skiing have taught her a few important safety lessons. “Even though you can ski safely and take all the precautions yourself, you can never quite control what other people might do, and wearing a helmet will certainly reduce injury,” she says. “If visibility is bad, we tend to get off the slopes, and head into the lodge for hot chocolate.”

Updated June 6, 2016