Winnipeg Health Region Wave, January / February 2013
The huge snow flakes drifting down from the sky seem so soft and delicate.
But lose control while flying down your favourite slope, and those same gentle snowflakes will feel as hard and unforgiving as any concrete wall.
Downhill and cross-country skiing and snowboarding are popular sports in Manitoba, but they can lead to injuries if safety precautions aren’t taken.
There are plenty of ways to bang yourself up while skiing or snowboarding, from simply falling down to smacking into some trees.
Every year, as more people embrace winter, more people injure themselves. In Canada, more people are admitted to hospital from injuries sustained while snowboarding and alpine and cross-country skiing than from playing hockey.
In 2010 to 2011, there were 2,329 hospital admissions for a skiing or snowboarding accident, compared with just over 1,100 hockey-related admissions requiring at least one night in hospital. These numbers do not include trips to the first aid hut at the hill, an emergency department, doctor’s office, or deaths, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information statistics.
The most common injury among adult skiers is a sprained thumb, while snowboarders most often hurt their wrists, says Dr. Wayne Hildahl, Chief Operating Officer of the Pan Am Clinic, which treats many skiers and snowboarders after they’ve injured themselves.
"We mostly see the people who have broken or sprained a limb, who’ve dislocated a shoulder, or who have had a concussion from a crash," says Hildahl, adding that Pan Am Clinic’s Minor Injury Clinic is the go-to place for musculo-skeletal injuries in Winnipeg.
According to a report written by Dr. Lynne Warda, Medical Director of IMPACT, the Winnipeg Health Region’s njury prevention program, the risk of injuring yourself is approximately two to four per 1,000 participant days. The highest risk is among snowboarders, while children to age 17 are more likely to hurt themselves than older participants. Boys are more likely to hurt themselves than girls in the age 10 to 19 category.
"A significant number of Manitobans play snow sports like these," says Hildahl. "Those who do get injured are often beginners, often on the first day of skiing or snowboarding, although expert skiers or boarders may be at risk for the more severe injuries because of the terrain they’re travelling on."
Cross-country skiers are much less likely to hurt themselves than their alpine counterparts, and for different reasons. While downhill skiers and snowboarders suffer injury from falls and jumps, cross-country skiers suffer most injury from losing control - a reason that doesn’t show up in the other two sports, according to data from the Canadian Hospitals Injury Reporting and Prevention Program.
Improvements in ski and snowboard gear over the years have improved safety on the hills. But the equipment must be properly adjusted and maintained, according to Warda’s report, which goes on to say, "Among skiers younger than 13, children using rental equipment are more likely to be injured than children using their own equipment." Adults also have similar problems with rental and borrowed equipment.
According to the Canadian Ski Council, more Canadians are wearing helmets when skiing and snowboarding. The council surveyed over 6,500 people in February 2012, and found that 83.1 per cent of them wear helmets, up from a similar sample in December 2011, when 79.9 per cent said they wore helmets when participating in the sports.
Similar to what is seen in bike helmet use, children are the majority of helmet wearers. Over 95 per cent of children on the slopes are outfitted with a helmet, according to the council, either their own or a rental. Most ski instruction programs require children to be wearing helmets, but do not require the same of adults.
Despite the increase in helmet use, there were 135 serious head injuries involving skiing or snowboarding in Canada last year. Over the past five years, a total of 759 head injuries were related to ski hill activity.
"Concussion is a huge issue, especially for snowboarders, who like to go into the half-pipes and on the jumps, and for skiers who hit trees or lift posts or each other," says Hildahl. "Helmets are useful but their use shouldn’t increase your willingness to take risks, as they don’t make you immune to danger."
Along with using helmets, Hildahl has a number of tips to avoid injury when enjoying winter sports: get your gear tuned up, take a lesson from a professional, follow the alpine responsibility code and know the terrain.
"Don’t just put yourself and your kids on skis. Put them into a lesson, because the worst thing you can do is try to teach them yourself," says Hildahl, who went on many skiing holidays with his family, and remembers following his children down quite a number of double black runs.
Strange as it may seem to be worried about the sun in winter, you need to protect your skin. The sun’s rays bounce off the snow and can give you a sunburn before you know it. "You’ll see a lot of people walking around with a ‘raccoon face’ after they take off their goggles at the end of skiing," he says. "Avoid that. Wear sunscreen."
If you’re tired, go inside and warm up from the cold, eat a snack and have a drink, he says. "Tired falls are a fast way of losing control and hurting yourself," says Hildahl. "Reduce your risk and you’ll be having an injury-free winter adventure."
Susie Strachan is a communications advisor with the Winnipeg Health Region.