Keeping safe on the slopes

Enis Guryel

Winter sports are sometimes perceived as "dangerous" but there are surprising few serious injuries on the slopes. However, every once in a while something will go awry and someone will sustain a fracture. Keen skier and consultant surgeon, Enis Guryel from Spring Orthopaedics, tells us more about the types of fractures that can happen to skiers and snowboarders.

The good news for ski and snowboarding aficionados is that these days you are far less likely to get a serious injury than in the past. The overall rate of injuries has dropped by 50% over the last four decades and broken legs have decreased by 95% since the early 1970s.

However, fractures do still happen, usually of the lower leg, collar bone, wrist and thumb. This last is usually caused by falling onto the hand while holding onto a ski pole or getting the thumb caught up in the loop. Wrist fractures tend to happen more to snowboarders than skiers as they are more likely to fall forward with all their weight onto an outstretched hand.

Fractures of the collar bone can happen to both skiers and snowboarders as the result of falls. This type of injury can be very painful and usually means wearing a sling for around six weeks while the bone heals. Very occasionally surgery will be required if the fracture is complex or the bone doesn’t heal correctly.

Leg fractures are seen more often among skiers, usually of the tibia, the major bone of the lower leg. Tibial shaft fractures occur usually around the boot top. A typical scenario is skiing unexpectedly into soft snow at speed so that the skis suddenly brake while the body continues forward under the momentum. If the bindings don’t immediately release the boots from the skis, the shins will take all the force.

Treatment for leg fractures depends on the nature and severity of the injury. Straight forward fractures are usually fixed by putting the leg in a plaster cast for a few weeks so that the bones are kept in place while they heal. Sometimes, however, surgery to pin the bones in place is needed, particularly if the fracture is segmental (broken in several places) or open (the broken end of the bones pierce the skin).

Advances in boot binding technology have helped to lower the risk of leg fractures but it’s very important that you check your bindings are set at the correct level for your skis, weight and ability.

Other things you can do to lower the risk of hurting yourself are:

  • Ski within your ability – if the condition of the slope is beyond your capability then don’t attempt it
  • Don’t carry on you are tired or have had a boozy lunch. All too often it’s that “one last run” when accidents happen
  • Keep your speed in check – leave downhill ski racing to the experts!
  • Check your equipment is in good condition and is correctly fitted
  • Wear appropriate protective gear – helmets for everyone and wrist guards for snowboarders – however good you are there is no accounting for other people on the slopes
  • Make sure you are in good physical shape before you go – walking, running, cycling and swimming will help improve your core strength and stamina