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Winter Sports Injury Prevention: Safety on the Slopes

Millions of persons ski, snowboard, and sled each year in the United States. These cold weather activities, which can be exhilarating, also result in many injuries each year. By developing skills with a qualified instructor and supervising young children while they participate in these activities, you can help reduce the risk of injury.

You can reduce the chance of becoming injured while skiing, snowboarding, and sledding if you follow these safety tips from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, the National Ski Areas Association, SAFE KIDS, and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission:

Skiing and Snowboarding:

Preparation:

  • Before you get out on the slopes, be sure you're in shape. You'll enjoy the sports more and have lower risk of injury if you're physically fit.
  • Take a lesson (or several) from a qualified instructor. Like anything, you'll improve the most when you receive expert guidance. And be sure to learn how to fall correctly and safely to reduce the risk of injury.
  • Don't start jumping maneuvers until you've had proper instruction on how to jump and have some experience. Jumps are the most common cause of spinal injuries among snowboarders.
  • Obtain proper equipment. Be sure that your equipment is in good condition and have your ski or snowboard bindings adjusted correctly at a local ski shop. (Extra tip for snowboarders: wrist guards and knee pads can help protect you when you fall.)
  • Wear a helmet to prevent head injuries from falls or collisions. (One study showed that helmet use by skiers and snowboarders could prevent or reduce the severity of nearly half of head injuries to adults and more than half of head injuries to children less than 15 years old.) Skiers and snowboarders should wear helmets specifically designed for these sports.
  • When buying skiwear, look for fabric that is water and wind-resistant. Look for wind flaps to shield zippers, snug cuffs at wrists and ankles, collars that can be snuggled up to the chin and drawstrings that can be adjusted for comfort and to keep the wind out.
  • Dress in layers. Layering allows you to accommodate your body's constantly changing temperature. For example, dress in polypropylene underwear (top and bottoms), which feels good next to the skin, dries quickly, absorbs sweat and keeps you warm. Wear a turtleneck, sweater and jacket.
  • Be prepared for changes in the weather. Bring a headband or hat with you to the slopes (60 percent of heat-loss is through the head) and wear gloves or mittens.
  • Protect your skin from the sun and wind by using a sun screen or sun block. The sun reflects off the snow and is stronger than you think, even on cloudy days!
  • Always use appropriate eye protection. Sunglasses or goggles will help protect your vision from glare, help you to see the terrain better, and help shield your eyes from flying debris.

When You're on the Slopes:

  • The key to successful skiing and snowboarding is control. To have it, you must be aware of your technique and level of ability, the terrain, and the skiers and snowboarders around you.
  • Take a couple of slow ski or snowboard runs to warm up at the start of each day.

  • Ski or snowboard with partners and stay within sight of each other, if possible. If one partner loses the other, stop and wait.

  • Stay on marked trails and avoid potential avalanche areas such as steep hillsides with little vegetation. Begin a run slowly. Watch out for rocks and patches of ice on the trails.
  • Be aware of the weather and snow conditions and how they can change. Make adjustments for icy conditions, deep snow powder, wet snow, and adverse weather conditions.
  • If you find yourself on a slope that exceeds your ability level, always leave your skis or snowboard on and side step down the slope.
  • If you find yourself skiing or snowboarding out of control, fall down on your rear end or on your side, the softest parts of your body.
  • Drink plenty of water to avoid becoming dehydrated.
  • Avoid alcohol consumption. Skiing and snowboarding do not mix well with alcohol or drugs. Beware of medicines or drugs that impair the senses or make you drowsy.
  • If you're tired, stop and rest. Fatigue is a risk factor for injuries.

The National Ski Areas Association endorses a responsibility code for skiers. This code can be applied to snowboarders also. The following are the code's seven safety rules of the slopes:

  1. Always stay in control and be able to stop or avoid other people or objects.
  2. People ahead of you have the right of way. It is your responsibility to avoid them.
  3. You must not stop where you obstruct a trail or are not visible from above.
  4. Whenever starting downhill or merging into a trail, look uphill and yield to others.
  5. Always use devices to help prevent runaway equipment.
  6. Observe all posted signs and warnings. Keep off closed trails and out of closed areas.
  7. Prior to using any lift, you must have the knowledge and ability to load, ride, and unload safely.

Sledding:

The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons recommends the following safety guidelines to improve sledding safety for children:

Essential

  • Sled only in designated areas free of fixed objects such as trees, posts and fences.
  • Children in these areas must be supervised by parents or adults.
  • All participants must sit in a forward-facing position, steering with their feet or a rope tied to the steering handles of the sled. No one should sled head-first down a slope.
  • Do not sled on slopes that end in a street, drop off, parking lot, river or pond.

Preferred

  • Children under 12 years old should sled wearing a helmet.
  • Wear layers of clothing for protection from injuries.
  • Do not sit/slide on plastic sheets or other materials that can be pierced by objects on the ground.
  • Use a sled with runners and a steering mechanism, which is safer than toboggans or snow disks.
  • Sled in well-lighted areas when choosing evening activities.
The Problem

According to the National Sporting Goods Association, nearly 10 million persons participate in alpine skiing more than once a year and up to 2.5 million snowboard each year. Skiing, snowboarding, and sledding can be great fun and are terrific ways to exercise. But they can also be risky. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) estimates that 84,200 skiing injuries and 37,600 snowboarding injuries were treated in hospital emergency rooms in the United States in 1997, including approximately 17,500 head injuries. However, the most common skiing-related injuries are knee and ankle sprains and fractures. While most skiing and snowboarding injuries occur among adults, the majority of sledding-related injuries are among children 5-14 years old. More than 14,500 children in this age group were treated for sledding-related injuries in the United States in 1997.

The estimated number of skiing-related injuries declined by more than 25 percent from 1993 to 1997, partly because of improvements in ski equipment, such as redesigned bindings. However, during that same period, snowboarding injuries nearly tripled and the number of head injuries from snowboarding increased five-fold.

A CPSC study found there were 17,500 head injuries associated with skiing and snowboarding in 1997. This study estimated that 7,700 head injuries, including 2,600 head injuries to children, could be prevented or reduced in severity each year by using skiing or snowboarding helmets. The study also showed that helmet use could prevent about 11 skiing- and snowboarding-related deaths annually. As a result of these findings, CPSC recommends skiers and snowboarders wear helmets specifically designed for these activities to prevent head injuries from falls and collisions.

Safety Resources
American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons

Through the public information link to patient education on the AAOS home page www.aaos.org, you can access fact sheets on injury prevention for many sports, including skiing and sledding.

American Academy of Pediatrics

AAP has safety tips for the winter holidays (including tips on outdoor sports) at www.aap.org/advocacy/releases/novsafe.htm.

American Society of Safety Engineers - Quad Cities Chapter

This organization's web site has information on the features of a safe sled and on sledding safety at www.qc-asse.org/sledding.shtml.

National Safety Council

NSC's web site provides winter sport injury prevention information. This material can be accessed at www.nsc.org/pubs/fsh/archive/snowhill.htm.

National Ski Areas Association

NSAA is the trade association for ski area owners and operators. Suggestions for safe skiing and snowboarding can be found on their web site at www.nsaa.org/MemberUpdate/skitips.htm.

National Ski Patrol

NSP is a nonprofit membership association providing education services about emergency care and safety to the public and mountain recreation industry. Their safety information for skiers and snowboarders can be found at www.nsp.org/Safety/tips.asp.

SAFE KIDS

Data on childhood sports-related injuries can be accessed on SAFE KIDS' web site at www.safekids.org/fact99/sports99.html.

U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission

Information about CPSC's study of the impact of using helmets to prevent head injuries to skiers and snowboarders can be accessed at www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/prerel/prhtm199/99046.html.

 

References

The data and safety tips in this fact sheet were obtained from the following sources:

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Skiing. Available at www.aaos.org/wordhtml/pat_educ/skiing.htm.

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Sledding Safety. Available at www.aaos.org/wordhtml/papers/position/sledding.htm.

Caine D, Caine C, Lindner K, editors. Epidemiology of Sports Injuries. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 1996:29-40.

National Ski Areas Association. Ski and Snowboarding Tips. Available at www.nsaa.org/MemberUpdate/skitips.htm.

National Ski Areas Association. Your Responsibility Code. Available at www.nsaa.org/MemberUpdate/thecode.htm

SAFE KIDS. Sports and Recreational Activity Injury. Available at www.safekids.org/fact99/sports99.html.

U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. CPSC Staff Recommends Use of Helmets for Skiers, Snowboarders to Prevent Head Injuries. Available at www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/prerel/prhtm199/99046.html.


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Editor: Susan K. Boyer, RN
Editor: Susan K. Boyer, RN
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