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House Calls / Dr. Michael B. Schwartz

Published 1:14 pm, Tuesday, January 8, 2013
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Skiing, snowboarding, ice-skating and sledding are just a few of the winter sports enjoyed by all ages. These family activities offer adventure and excitement; however, high-speed injuries are responsible for more than 400,000 emergency room visits each year. Many of these injuries can be quite serious, like bone fractures and head concussions.

Generally, injuries tend to be sport-specific. For example, snowboarders have a higher incidence of wrist fractures, while skiers tend to injure their knees. Statistically, most injuries occur toward the end of the day due to fatigue.

David Weiss, an emergency medical technician and member of the National Ski Patrol at Mount Snow in Vermont says, "While on patrol we see many snowboarders suffer thumb (boarders' thumb) and shoulder injuries due to falling over and landing with their hands out in front. Fortunately, they do sell gloves and mittens with wrist and thumb guards and they seem to reduce injuries."

David also advises skiers to learn how to fall properly. "Professional skiers are taught to `bail out' if needed to avoid injuries; however, many inexperienced skiers injure their legs and knees when they try to recover from a fall by leaning too far back on their skis."

Regardless of activity, there are precautions that one can take to reduce risks.

Exercise

Prior to undertaking any activity, it is important to train the muscles you will need to use for that particular sport. For example, if you choose to ski, you want to train and strengthen your lower extremities. Such exercises include squats and core exercises. Stretching prior to any activity will warm up your ligaments and tendons. Finally, cardiovascular training such as running, biking or elliptical will improve endurance.

Protective Equipment

Helmets -- Although ski helmets don't appear to reduce serious injuries from high impact collisions, they do appear to reduce injuries from low velocity impacts such as with the snow surface, equipment from other skiers, falling branches or from the chair lift when loading or unloading.

Wrist guards -- this type of safety equipment worn during ice-skating and snowboarding has been shown to reduce wrist injuries by half.

Recommendations

Never ski or snowboard alone. Always participate in your sport with a partner or small group of people. This will ensure that if something goes wrong, you have help. This is especially true while skiing or boarding in the woods or back country.

Check your equipment. Improperly fitted equipment such as poorly-fitted boots or incorrectly set bindings will increase your risk of injury. Have a professional tune-up your equipment prior to the winter season. Properly tuned equipment will help you with control and safety.

Wear warm, layered clothing. Keeping warm and dry will help prevent frostbite, a frequent consequence of cold weather sports. Furthermore, mittens also tend to keep hands warmer than gloves. Finally, hand warmers and foot warmers have been shown to improve circulation and comfort in cold weather.

Bring your cell phone. Should an injury occur, a cell phone will allow you to call for help and assistance.

Quit when you are tired. Most injuries occur when muscles are fatigued and toward the end of the day. Know your limitations.

Drink plenty of water. Dehydration is common during the winter season due to the dryness of the air. In addition, be sure to minimize or avoid alcohol intake as this will increase the risk of dehydration and impair one's reflexes and judgment.

Don't exceed your abilities. Most injuries during skiing or snowboarding occur when one travels at excessive speeds or on difficult terrain, resulting in a loss of control.

Take a lesson. Regardless of sport or ability, everyone can benefit from additional instruction. Learning how to approach various conditions on a mountain or how to fall properly can significantly reduce the risk of injury.

Despite the best of preparations, injuries do occur. Collisions, falls and cold exposure offer the greatest risks. However, most injuries can be minimized or avoided altogether by simply using common sense. Ski and snowboard within your abilities. Winter sports can be invigorating. But don't go down a slippery slope -- remember safety first.

Dr. Michael Schwartz is board certified in internal medicine with a private practice in Darien. Contact him at www.drmichaelbschwartz.com.