The 3 Most Dangerous Pitfalls of Winter Sports and How to Avoid Them

The temperature’s dropping and Christmas is around the corner. It’s winter, and that means winter sports. Keep your spine safe on the slopes with our expert’s tips.

It had all the trappings of a winter wonderland, except for the flashing blue and red lights of the ambulance. The moment Alan heard the pop and the sudden electric shock-like stabbing flank pain, he knew something was seriously wrong with his back. Unable to sit upright after his sled crashed just beyond a makeshift sled jump, Alan worried his wintertime jaunt with his friends had not only come to an end that day but were gone forever.

Winter sports pitfallsWinter sports are great fun, but you need to be careful and guard against spine injuries.

Winter is here, and that means a potpourri of exhilarating, exciting and sometimes dangerous sports: skiing, sledding, snowboarding, and ice skating. So whether you’re waiting for the snow to fall, or heading skiing for winter break, it’s important for children and adults to remember to play it safe while playing snow sports.

There is nothing benign about the combination of snow and speed. While we may consider skiing and snowboarding moderate risk activities and sledding a child’s pastime, they are all equally dangerous.

In 2018 almost 200,000 people were treated at hospitals, doctors’ offices and emergency rooms for injuries related to winter sports, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. That’s 76,000 due to skiing; 53,000, snowboarding; and 48,000, ice skating.

The American Association of Neurological Surgeons reports that 20 percent of skiing and snowboarding injuries result in severe head trauma, and of those, 22 percent are serious enough to result in loss of consciousness or concussion. Finally, head injuries are the most frequent cause of death and severe disability among skiers and snowboarders.

The Mayo Clinic reported a few years ago that 25,000 children under 15 are seen in emergency rooms for sledding injuries.

Head injuries can be life-ending, or life-changing. Actress Natasha Richardson, activist Michael Kennedy and entertainer Sonny Bono all died in skiing-related accidents. In January 2013 six Russian tourists were killed in the Italian Alps when their snowmobile-pulled sled overturned.

These are frightening statistics but there’s no need to forgo the fun. It is imperative, though, for parents and children as well as active adults to understand the dangers that come with snow sports. Here are a few simple guidelines that can make winter sports much safer.

1. Never go off a jump when sledding.

With proper training small makeshift jumps and moguls can be fun and relatively safe for skiers and snowboarders, but sledding jumps are extremely dangerous.

The difference is that skiers and snowboarders have a set of shock absorbers (bent knees) that soften their landing. Sleds do not have shock absorbers so when a sledder lands, all of the energy is transmitted to the sled and then to the person riding the sled. This often results in spinal fractures because the spine bears the brunt of the landing.

Winter sports pitfalls jumpBad idea, says Dr. McLaughlin.

Most people who are sledding are either on their stomachs leaning forward and their head can get jammed into their body causing a cervical fracture or they are sitting. And that’s no better. If sitting, sledders can land on a hard surface, again without benefit of shock absorbers, damaging a low back vertebra.

Every winter I see at least two or three patients (like Alan) in the emergency room with spinal fractures related to sled jumping. The kinetic energy caused by the impact of a body with the ground is transferred to the blocks of bone and the spine called vertebral bodies. Bodies can only withstand certain loads and if those loads are too great, the bone will fracture.

When a fracture like this occurs, the bones can explode into the spinal canal, damaging the spinal cord. This is a common problem and injuries off sledding jumps are a major cause of wintertime spine injuries.

2. Wear a helmet.

Helmets should always be standard equipment when skiing, snowboarding or sledding. They are required for all other dangerous activities that potentially may cause a head injury, such as football or bicycling. Think about snow sports the same way.

While brain injuries can occur when wearing a helmet, it is clear that concussions and head injuries are reduced when they are worn. A 2018 report from the National Ski Area Association’s annual demographic studies indicate that nationally 83 percent of skiers and snowboarders wear helmets. Make that 89 percent in the northeast.

It’s really good news that more kids are wearing them, and are having fewer serious head injuries. Here’s a site, Lids on Kids, that offers guidance on selecting a well-fitting helmet.

3. Don’t go between trees or in woods.

Sledding or skiing/snowboarding through the woods is extremely dangerous. Trees and rocks are dangerous immovable obstacles that are usually not perceived by children as objects of blunt force.

When sledding down a hill, a sled can reach a speed as high as 20 miles per hour. If the sled goes out of control, the passenger on the sled can strike the tree at a high velocity. This can also happen with rocks, which may not even be visible as the child is sledding down the hill.

It is important to emphasize to your children that sledding into a tree is equivalent of getting hit in the head with a baseball bat at full speed — only in reverse.

Winter sports pitfalls treesExercise extreme caution when skiing or riding between trees. Better yet, stay out of the woods altogether.

Indeed, our sledder got lucky. Alan did have a compression fracture on his X-rays but he did not require surgery and managed to get better with a back brace.

Have fun this winter, but wear a helmet, steer clear of sledding jumps and the trees! What else can you do to ensure a safe day in the snow? Start slowly with easy runs down the hill and build to a harder slope.

Another tip is to quit one run earlier than planned. It’s the last one that always gets you because you are fatigued and make mistakes in steering. Never, ever, mix alcohol with any winter sports.

Lastly, be keenly aware of untested, nonguarded frozen over ponds. Only skate on approved and guarded ponds with other people and make sure there is equipment for an unexpected fall through the ice.

Here’s to a happy, healthy winter!

Mark McLaughlin, MD is a SpineUniverse Editorial Board memberpracticing board-certified neurosurgeon and author of the book "Cognitive Dominance: A Brain Surgeon's Quest to Outthink Fear."


Updated on: 11/23/20
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