Winter Sports Injuries: A Slippery Slope

Jay Rapley, M.D.- Board Certified in Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine,

Every year during the winter we all get excited to hit the ski slopes, frozen ponds and skating rinks to enjoy a few hours of outdoor exercise. Participating in winter sports such as skating, skiing or ice hockey you can suffer common injuries that can be prevented with the right safety precautions.
Almost 200,000 people were treated at hospitals, doctors’ offices, and emergency rooms for injuries related to winter sports in 2018, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. This figure includes:
• 76,000 injuries from snow skiing
• 53,000 injuries from snowboarding
• 48,000 injuries from ice skating
• 22,000 injuries from sledding and tobogganing

Winter sports injuries include sprains, strains, dislocations, and fractures. These injuries usually happen at the end of the day, when people overexert themselves on the last run before the day’s end. Most injuries can easily be prevented if participants prepare for their sport by keeping in good physical condition, staying alert, and stopping when they are tired or in pain.

More than 23,500 concussions result from playing winter sports every year. Most occur while skiing or snowboarding, anyone who falls while skating or playing hockey could be at risk of a brain injury.

Concussions are the leading cause of death and disability among skiers and snowboarders. Symptoms of concussion are blurred vision, dizziness, confusion, swelling at the site of the injury and vomiting. Dr. Jay Rapley of Rockhill Orthopaedic Specialists said, “Although there are no laws or regulations regarding the use of helmets, their use can reduce the risk of a head injury up to 30% in some studies.”

When you hit a hard surface like ice, you run the risk of dislocating your shoulder. This joint is more mobile than other joints and is less stable. Skiers are at greater risk of dislocating a shoulder, but other winter activities can be just as risky. Not only is a dislocated shoulder extremely painful but putting off medical care for too long could lead to a chronically unstable shoulder causing functional limitations. Chronic shoulder instability can not only impact your daily life but can lead to degenerative changes in your shoulder at an earlier age.

Dr. Rapley stated, “These injuries to the back and spinal cord are the most devastating of all the injuries. Currently there is no cure for a spinal cord injury and every aspect of a patient’s life is affected in some way.” A fracture or dislocation could damage the spinal cord and lead to either partial or full paralysis.
Skiers are especially prone to spinal injuries in the wintertime. Snowboarding and other high-intensity sports could cause you to hurt your back, so it’s important to adhere to skiing injury prevention tips.

If you stretch out your hands to break a fall or keep from crashing into something a serious elbow injury can occur from winter sports. Dr. Rapley commented, “The most common result of an elbow injury is loss of elbow extension, or the ability to straighten your arm fully. This can happen with or without a fracture. Wrist and elbow injuries can be more common in snowboarders than skiers, but these injuries do not always discriminate.”

Skiing is the only winter sport in which you’re regularly using your hands and wrists. That’s why the most common hand injury – a torn ligament in the thumb – is known as skier’s thumb. It’s the second-most common injury among skiers, second only to knee sprains.

The most common winter sports injuries are knee injuries. “The main stabilizing ligament of the knee, the ACL, is commonly torn during skiing accidents,” Dr. Rapley says. “These injuries can be treated with or without surgery but require a long recovery time. Tearing the ACL can increase the risk of future arthritis four-fold if the ACL is the only structure damaged and a six-fold increase in arthritis if there is associated damage to the cartilage.”

Knee Pain

Every day, 25,000 Americans sprain or fracture their ankles. Tripping, twisting or rolling ankles – all things that can happen when playing winter sports. A fracture of the Talus bone – located above the heel bone on the outside of the ankle – is known as snowboarder’s ankle. “Some of these ankle injuries commonly seen with snowboarding can lead to chronic ankle pain and dysfunction,” Says Dr. Rapley. “Sometimes surgery is performed to fix a fracture with plates and screws or excision of bony fragments.”

Following these injury prevention guidelines is the key to avoiding common injuries whether you’re on the ice or on the slopes.
Take Regular Breaks: While enjoying the winter fun, take frequent breaks to hydrate, refuel and recover. This will give overworked muscles a break and allow them to keep going.
Watch the Weather: Winter weather can be quite unpredictable, check the forecast before you head out. Inclement conditions increase the likelihood of a sports injury.
Don’t Go Alone: When playing winter sports, minimize the risk by bringing someone with you. Stay close enough to one another so you can react quickly if there’s an accident.
Do Warmup Exercises: Your muscles and heart need to be in good shape before any type of physical activity. Do warmups for intense wintertime activities such as skiing, skating or snowboarding. Warm up cold muscles with some light exercise or stretching.
Use Protective Equipment: Winter sports injuries can be minimized or prevented by wearing reliable protective equipment. The most essential pieces are a helmet, goggles and UV sunglasses for skiing and snowboarding.

Check Your Gear: Wear multiple layers that can insulate your body and be removed as needed. Make sure all of your equipment is in good condition without any obvious defects. This includes your skis, snowboard, ice skates, sled and anything else you’re relying on to work properly.
Follow Proper Techniques: Many injuries occur because the skier, skater or snowboarder didn’t have the right form. Spend time learning from a qualified instructor before participating or research online to learn techniques for winter sports safety.
Experience Level: Know your abilities and stick to the trails that are suited for them, it’s important to recognize your own limitations. Learn the rules of the sport, whether it be an ice-skating rink or on the ski slopes.
Wear Appropriate Clothing: For winter sports wear heavy coats and apparel to stay warm. Clothing does more than just keep you warm, it has to be flexible enough to allow you to move freely, because constrictive clothing can actually increase the risk of injury.

Know Your Surroundings: Many winter sports injuries occur because someone didn’t anticipate a big tree or rock on the ski slope or didn’t notice a thin patch of ice during a hockey game. Knowing what’s around you helps you figure out where to go – and which areas to avoid.

Limitations: Even after following every skiing, skating or snowboarding injury prevention guideline, you could end up feeling exhausted or experience pain. In either case, it’s time to stop. Don’t push yourself during “one last run” when you’re already tired. This is when accidents can easily happen.

Don’t let an injury put your winter plans on ice. Winter means fun and the possibility of canceled school days for the young and young-at-heart, it also means serious complications and risks for people of all walks of life. Taking extra caution and using these injury prevention tips can help reduce the risk of serious injuries during your winter sports activities.


Jay Rapley, Board Certified in Orthopaedic Surgeon, Board Certified in Sports Medicine,

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