An unspoiled day on the slopes isn’t always as easy as packing your equipment and heading out the door. Lousy snow conditions, gear malfunctions and (my personal pet peeve) super crowded slopes can quickly sour your perfect powder day—or worse, leave you injured. Try not to harp on the negatives, but pay attention to conditions and people around you. It is also extremely important to use equipment that is functional and fitted properly; otherwise your off-day could cause you to miss out on the rest of the season.
We spoke with two experts on snow sport injury, Dr. Scott Faucett an orthopedist and assistant professor at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Dr. David McAllister who specializes in sports medicine and orthopaedic surgery and works with the UCLA Athletic Department. They gave some insight on common ski and snowboard injuries, treatment and prevention.
The most common ski injuries are different from common snowboarding injuries but the causes of accidents are typically the same. Faucett said misinterpreting conditions on the mountain plays a big role in accidents. It’s not necessarily poor conditions, but the trouble is when you don’t see a patch of ice or an unexpected drop, added McAllister. Trying to ride above your level is a major cause of injury as well.
“The American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine reports that being active for periods without resting, using improper or faulty equipment, being dehydrated, skiing or snowboarding above what's comfortable for your ability and not properly adjusting to the altitude can all contribute to getting hurt," wrote the LA Times.
Different equipment, movement and mentality all lead to different injuries. A knee ligament injury is hands down the most common ailment for skiers (think Lindsey Vonn). Snowboarding injuries vary. McAllister said broken bones are common and Faucett said ankles and upper bodies are the most affected areas. Boarding boots are less stiff than ski boots, so the ankle is prone to injury. Broken wrists are a cornerstone boarding injury because when falling people instinctively put out their arms. For both sports, Faucett said jumps and tricks can lead to more serious injury of the back, neck and head.
While you can’t design an accident-safe boot, there are a few things you can do to prevent these and other injuries. First, remember why most of these injuries occur, be aware of the conditions, monitor your energy level and stay within your limits.
Skiers can greatly minimize the risk of devastating knee injury by making sure bindings are fitted correctly. Bindings should be loose enough to release the boot in the event of a fall, especially for beginners. Major ligament tears happen when the bindings don’t release and the knees twist with the ski, said McAllister. You might also wear a knee brace, for an added bit of protection. Snowboarders should consider wrist guards.
You’ve heard this a million times as a kid, but seriously, wear a helmet. “A helmet will not prevent catastrophic head injury but it will help with minor concussions and low grade injuries,” said Faucett. “And keep your snowboard on the ground, it’s not as fun [laughs], but oh well.”
For beginners, professional instruction pays off, said McAllister. The same goes for people looking to try out terrain parks; they can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. And as a general principle, “the more energy involved, the more catastrophic these injuries will be,” said McAllister.
After injury, treatment depends on the damage. Treatment ranges from ligament reconstruction and setting broken bones to alternating ice and heat. McAllister has treated many snow sport injuries and says people are hardly ever deterred from returning to the mountain. “Most people want to be fixed up quickly so they can get back out there,” he said.
If you're injured get medical attention, said Faucett. A visit to the doctor will likely pay off in shorter recovery time and you'll be less likely to suffer reoccurring injuries.