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Olympics Spark Interest in Winter Sports, But Beware


Watching the 2010 Winter Olympics can spark a great deal of interest in winter sports among people who already participate in them as well as individuals who are moved to try a new sport. In both cases, people should not let the excitement of the Olympic games blind them to their need to know and practice safety measures to help prevent injury and also make the sport more enjoyable.

Among the most popular winter sports are downhill skiing and snowboarding, two activities that carry a high risk of injury. Generally, the faster the sport, the more likely you will sustain a serious injury as the result of a fall or collision. Each sport also has injuries that are more common based on the nature of the activity.

The North American Spine Society (NASS) warns that “While year round exercise is recommended for overall spine health, winter sporting activities come with some degree of injury risk,” according to Lincoln Likness, DO, NASS member and Cleveland Clinic center for Spine Health physician. Individuals should focus both their in-season and off-season preparation on their core: spine, abdominal, gluteal, and upper leg muscles. When people have a strong and balanced core, it supports optimal body mechanics, stability, and balance and takes some of the stress off the spine.

The NASS also noted in a recent release that individuals who suffer a fall or a high velocity injury, or who experience severe pain or motor-sensory deficits should be evaluated by a spine physician promptly. Snowboarders tend to fall backwards or forwards, and it’s the former that more commonly results in spinal injuries to the lumbar and/or cervical area. Head injuries are usually the result of a direct blow to the back of the skull during a fall.

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Skiers tend to experience knee injuries, especially those involving torque-type injuries to the knees and lower extremities. When the upper leg twists one way and the lower leg rotates in the opposite direction, this often results in tears to the anterior cruciate ligament, or an ACL injury. Snowboarders have both feet strapped onto the same board, which protects the knees from twisting, but not the upper body. When snowboarders fall they tend to land on their hands, buttocks, heads, or shoulders. Wrist fractures are the most common snowboarding injury, along with elbow contusions and dislocations, rotator cuff injuries, broken collarbones, concussions, and other head and neck injuries.

Skiers and snowboarders should wear a helmet, according to the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine. The Society notes that collisions resulting in serious head injury are the leading cause of death among skiers and snowboarders, and most collisions are with fixed objects or with other people. Data suggest that head and brain injuries among skiers are increasing. A recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Calgary noted that skiers and snowboarders who wore helmets were 35 percent significantly less likely to experience a head injury than those who did not wear a helmet. Wrist protectors are also recommended for snowboarders.

Other general tips for people who ski, snowboard, or engage in other snow sports are to:

  • Warm up before and cool down after their activity
  • Remember to hydrate. There is a tendency to forget to drink enough fluids in the winter
  • Pace yourself. Fatigue plays a big role in injuries on the slopes
  • If your equipment doesn’t feel right, check it out.
  • Don’t save the hardest runs until the end of the day
  • Learn how to fall correctly to prevent injury
  • Participate in cardiovascular training. Good fitness will help you be prepared for challenges on the slopes and to prevent injuries and fatigue
  • Keep your head up and always be aware of your surroundings. It is very easy to miss obstacles when skiing or snowboarding. The winter terrain can provide unexpected challenges.

We can’t all participate in the Olympics or perform at Olympic levels, but we can enjoy winter sports in a safe environment. If you plan to take to the slopes this winter, follow some sensible safety guidelines.

American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine
North American Spine Society press release
Russell K et al. The effect of helmets on the risk of head and neck injuries among skiers and snowboarders: a meta-analysis. CMAJ 2010 Feb. 1.