Reducing the risk of injury
When it comes to ski injuries, there is a lot of good news. First, the rate of injuries is really a lot lower than people think and this rate has gone down by about 50 percent since the 1970s when we first started keeping track of injuries at ski resorts. The rate is currently about two injuries for every thousand ski days. The decrease over the last 40 years has probably been due to a combination of better equipment as well as improvements in the management of ski areas (better grooming/signs/barriers etc.). In particular we see many fewer lower limb fractures because of improvements in bindings and ski boots. We also see fewer lacerations because of the advent of ski brakes and leases, which prevent “runaway” skis.
But unfortunately, like any sporting activity, inevitably injuries will happen. When we do see injuries for skiers the body part most commonly involved is the knee. The next most common are the ankle and lower leg, the head/face, the shoulder and finally the thumb. For snow boarders the most injured body part is the wrist followed by the head/face, shoulder, knee and then ankle.
What can we do to try and avoid those injuries?
- Make sure your equipment is working properly. At the beginning of each season visit a knowledgeable shop and let them make sure your skis, boots and especially bindings are in good working order. This will include tuning your skis and servicing your bindings. If you are not asked your height, weight and ability, go to another shop. Also, consider if it is time to replace old equipment. A good rule of thumb is that if your equipment is more than 15 years-old (especially your bindings), it may be time for an upgrade in order to get the latest technology and materials.
- Don’t borrow other people’s equipment. Studies have shown this can increase injury rate by as much as 800 percent.
- Wear adequate clothing, preferably in layers. Don’t forget your goggles, good quality sunglasses and sunscreen – – you can’t avoid what you can’t see. Also if you are comfortable you’ll be able to fully concentrate on the slopes.
- Wear a helmet, but remember helmets only can help you at low speeds. They do not make one “invincible.” If you ski recklessly a helmet will not protect you from injury. Studies do show that people wearing helmets tend to ski faster. (Helmets do not protect you from slamming into a tree.)
- Snowboarders should consider wearing wrist guards. There are now several studies showing that good wrist guards can decrease the chances of suffering a broken wrist, one of the most common snowboard injuries.
- Get in shape. Keep in mind that skiing/boarding takes both strength and stamina. In order to make the most of your experience, work in the offseason both on strengthening your legs and core and also increasing your aerobic fitness. Most ski magazine give great programs for conditioning in their early season editions.
- Warm up before you hit the slopes. Some light aerobic exercise is best to get the blood flowing to your muscles. But a gentle stretch of your hamstrings, thigh muscles, hips and calves also will get you ready to make those first turns.
- Listen to your body. Most injuries occur at the end of the day and right before lunch, when skiers are most tired. Recognize the need for rest and if you feel tired call it a day! That one extra trip up the chairlift can cost you weeks of skiing.
- Know your abilities. Studies show that injuries are much more likely if skiing with skiers who are of better ability. This occurs because the less experienced skier tends to ski faster and on more difficult terrain then there ability should allow.
- Learn the skier responsibility code and don’t ignore “signage.” This code is posted at all ski areas and does give important practical advice. Some tips – Ski slowly in congested areas and look both ways before entering a congested area. There are now several cases of skiers being prosecuted for failing to adhere to speed warnings and causing serious and sometimes fatal injuries.
- Take a lesson. Injuries are more common in new skiers/boarders and once bad habits are made they are very hard to correct.
- Never go “off trail” alone. Many ski area’s now allow skier to go to ungroomed and unmonitored “off piste” areas of the mountain. This can be great fun, but significantly increases the risks of injury. Never do this alone and always inform others of where you plan on skiing.
- Learn how to fall. This sounds simple, but is probably the most important advice one can give. It is during falls that most people are seriously injured. By learning the correct way to fall many of these injuries can be avoided. This topic could easily take up a whole column but there are some really good explanations on the Vermont Ski Safety website. Some of the advice is to always avoid having your knee’s completely straight, especially if you’re sliding after a fall. Also, once you lose your balance and begin a fall, keep your hands in front of you and allow yourself to fall. Many serious knee injuries occur while people try to “recover” from an inevitable fall.
This is a lot of information, but most suggestions can be easily followed and help you enjoy what should be a healthy and enjoyable season on the snow.