Ski and snowboard injuries: How to reduce your risk

Young ski racer during a slalom competition. Ski and snowboard injury prevention will keep this skier moving through the gates.
Skiers' injuries most often involve the knees and lower legs while snowboarders tend to injure their wrists and shoulders. (Adobe Stock)

If you and your family ski or snowboard, you know the joy of breathing fresh winter air while much of the world is cooped up inside. You may also know of the sports’ many benefits, such as developing strength, balance, even emotional resilience. There are plenty of upsides as long as you can keep yourself and your family injury free.

“Of all alpine sports, downhill skiing and snowboarding have the highest injury rates,” Dr. Kristin Whitney told attendees of a recent lecture at the Micheli Center on ski and snowboard injury prevention. Here are nine things you should know to enjoy an injury-free winter season.

1. Skiers' and snowboarders' injuries differ.

Skiers’ injuries most often involve the knees and lower legs. Snowboarders tend to injure their wrists and shoulders.

- Almost one out of every four ski injuries involves the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).

- Wrist sprains or fractures account for more than 20 percent of snowboarding injuries.

2. Both skiers and snowboarders are at risk for head injury.

Head injuries account for 14 percent of injuries in both skiing and snowboarding. Fortunately, helmets can reduce the risk of serious head injury.

3. The risk for injury changes with age.

Because their bones are still developing, kids younger than 13 tend to break bones, particularly their legs. In one review of injuries, 54 percent of leg fractures happened to beginner skiers younger than 13.
Older teens have stronger bones, but are more likely to take risks, often at high speeds. Not surprisingly, injury rates peak between the ages of 15 and 19.

4. The risk of injury changes with skill level.

Beginner skiers and snowboarders are three times more likely to get injured than more experienced alpine enthusiasts. Beginners’ muscles have to work harder and get tired sooner, which can lead to injury. Fortunately, their injuries also tend to be less severe.

5. Taking a lesson can reduce risk.

Instruction from a trained instructor can reduce both the risk and severity of injuries.
Among injured skiers and snowboarders who had not taken a lesson in the past year, 30 percent ended up in a hospital. By comparison, only 16 percent of those who had recently received formal instruction required hospital care.

6. Poorly-tuned equipment increases risk.

Bindings that fail to release or release too late account for up to 75 percent of lower leg fractures in young children. “Many ski shops do not properly assess children’s weight,” says Dr. Whitney. Make sure that your family’s equipment, especially bindings and boots, are in good condition. Even better, have a qualified technician test and adjust your child’s bindings based on their size, age, and skill level.

7. Injuries are more common at certain times of day.

The majority of injuries happen in the mornings and afternoons. “In the mornings, people get injured because they aren’t warmed up. Later in the day, skiers and snowboarders get fatigued and tend to fall more,” says Dr. Whitney. The takeaway message: start your day with stretching and a few runs on easier trails. If you feel tired after hours of exertion, avoid the temptation for "one more run."

8. Certain snow conditions increase injury risk.

Hard packed snow and ice increase both speed and the likelihood of a serious fall. Powder and heavy snow can force skiers’ legs into twisting positions and increase the risk of an ACL injury. Sudden terrain changes, such as crossing from a groomed area into an ungroomed area at high speed, can also contribute to a crash.

9. Remember the basics: Food, fluids, stretching, and rest.

Skiing and snowboarding are like any sport. Healthy food, hydration, stretching, and a good night's sleep can help you perform better, avoid injury, and have more fun on your vacation.

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Read more about how helmets can reduce the risk of head injuries and learn about the Sports Medicine Division.

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