Winter Sport Safety: Take Precautions and Stay Alert

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Statistics show that dozens of catastrophic injuries occur every year among skiers and snowboarders alone. So how do you reduce your risk of injury? Here, a physical therapist provides top tips. 

By Dina Barry, P.T., M.P.T., O.C.S., Physical Therapist at Renown Physical Therapy & Rehab

Winter sports enthusiasts already have reason to celebrate — snow has arrived. The slopes are open to skiers and snowboarders, and there’s plenty of white stuff for snowshoeing, sledding and cross-country skiing.

But before you strap on a snowboard or lace up a pair of skates, it’s important to consider safety. These sports, while thrilling and fun, can cause accident and injury. The National Ski Area Association statistics show that during the 2014-2015 season, 42 catastrophic injuries occurred among skiers and snowboarders alone. Those included broken necks or backs, paralysis and life-altering head injuries.

Among downhill skiers, knee, lower leg and shoulder injuries are common. Arm dislocation and thumb sprains have a high rate of occurrence as well. Wrist sprains or fractures and ankle sprains are more common among snowboarders, as they use their arms more frequently than skiers to balance and brace for falls. 

Similarly, recreational ice skaters see wrist sprains and fractures. They also sustain knee injuries and concussions from falling on hard ice. With any winter sport comes risk of spinal injury, which greatly increases when jumping is involved.

While it’s not a sport per se, sledding causes its share of accidents too — mostly among children who collide with stationary objects. Thirty percent of children hospitalized from a sledding accident sustain a head injury, with 10 percent resulting in a permanent disability.

So how do you reduce your risk of injury?

Winter Sport Safety Tips

Winter sports are physically demanding. If you work out regularly and have a good baseline fitness level, you’ll benefit from four to six weeks of dryland training before you layer up and head out for adventure. Vary your program with aerobic and anaerobic exercise, strength training, and flexibility. If you have little or no fitness baseline, start with a minimum four-week aerobic training program to build the endurance needed to safely tolerate a full day on the mountain.

Make sure you also have the right gear. Dress in water and wind-resistant, loose-fitting clothing that wicks away moisture. Always wear a helmet that fits securely. The same goes for goggles and waterproof gloves. Waterproof boots should provide additional ankle support. And don’t forget the sunscreen.

Cold muscles and ligaments are more prone to injury, so warm up first. You can do some dynamic stretches, or warm up on the mountain or ice skating rink slowly with some gentle runs or laps before picking up the pace. Beginners can also reduce their risk by taking time to learn the sport before going all out.

With any winter activity, reduce your risk of collision by staying aware of your environment and others around you. Make sure your kids sled with an adult and wear a helmet. They should also sled in open, obstacle-free areas; and use a sled with a steering mechanism.

Proper nutrition and hydration are essential to endurance, as winter sports burn a large number of calories. When exercising in cold weather, many people fail to drink enough liquids. So be conscious. Eat a good breakfast in the morning and refuel throughout the day with healthy, easy-to-carry snacks and plenty of water. Otherwise your muscles can fatigue, which increases your risk of injury. Staying hydrated also helps regulate your body temperature while outside in the cold.

Lastly, quit while you’re ahead: Your risk of injury greatly increases at the end of the day when you are getting tired.

Fortunately, the 2014-2015 injury rate actually shows improvement from the 50 catastrophic injuries that occurred in the prior season. And last winter also saw an increase in helmet use from 73 to 78 percent. Keep the momentum going. Prepare physically, wear the right gear and always stay alert. And don’t forget to have fun.

This story was also published in the Reno Gazette-Journal’s Health Source on December 27, 2015. To learn more, visit Renown Health’s Physical Therapy & Rehab

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