Monday Medical: Ski conditions and common injuries |

Monday Medical: Ski conditions and common injuries

Susan Cunningham
For the Steamboat Pilot & Today

Fresh powder or hardpack conditions determine more than just which ski runs you choose to head down first — they can also impact which sorts of injuries you should watch out for.

Dr. Adam Wilson, an orthopedic surgeon in Steamboat Springs and a member of the medical staff at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, outlines orthopedic injuries that are most common based on mountain conditions below.

Fresh powder? Be wary of strains and tears.

“When we have fresh snow and deep powder, we see more ligament and soft tissue injuries,” Wilson said. “They’re a lot more common with fresh snow because you have more torsional forces. People catch a ski or their board and fall, and their arm gets caught out behind them.”

For skiers, those injuries include tearing the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) or medial collateral ligament (MCL) in the knee; for snowboarders, dislocated shoulders are more common.

While these injuries don’t always require emergency surgery, it can be helpful to get checked out quickly.

For instance, with a torn ACL or MCL, having an x-ray the same day of the injury can confirm that there isn’t also a fracture of the tibial plateau. If the injury is just to soft tissue, patients often wait for the swelling to decrease and range of motion to return before having further treatment.

“We can take x-rays and splint the arm or get a knee brace, then the patient can usually go home and see us the next week or so,” Wilson said. “Typically they don’t have to go straight to surgery.”

Hardpack snow? Watch out for broken bones.

“With hardpack, we see lots of broken bones – broken legs, broken collarbones, arm bone and shoulder fractures,” Wilson said. “You’re basically falling down on concrete.”

Snowboarders tend to fall on their arms and shoulders, and so may experience more clavicle, shoulder and wrist injuries. For skiers, knee and leg injuries are more common.

While skiers and boarders can sometimes make it down the mountain after a ligament injury, a broken bone typically means they need help from ski patrol.

Some broken bones require surgery, or even emergency surgery. About three-fourths of the collarbone breaks that are seen in Steamboat end up being fixed through a surgery, while about half of shoulder dislocations need surgery.

“It depends on how much damage was done,” Wilson said. “Bad labral tears or rotator cuff tears often need surgery.”

Prevention tips, no matter the condition

Start by building a good base of strength. “With knee injuries, having good lower body strength going into ski season is as important as anything,” Wilson said.

Always ski within your ability and be cautious when skiing in the trees.

“Some people may get pushed to do something they’re not as comfortable with, but skiing within your comfort level may help you avoid an injury,” Wilson said.

Be sure you’re using good equipment that fits properly and is appropriate for the weather, such as lowlight goggles when it’s snowing hard.

And remember that being an experienced skier or boarder doesn’t mean you’re immune to injury.

“Yes, better skiers tend to learn how to fall, but they may go faster on more difficult terrain and can experience the same forces as beginners,” Wilson said.

Recovering from an injury

Fractures usually take two to four months to heal, while soft tissue injuries can take anywhere from four to eight months.

Wilson encourages patients through the recovery process by reminding them that while those recovery times may sound long, patients will be progressing back to full activity. While they may not be back to skiing soon after the injury, they may be able to bike or do other lower impact activities.

“Our goal is to get people out there doing all the stuff they enjoy,” Wilson said. “We see good success getting people back out to ski and snowboard by the next season, or with some fractures, even within the same season.”

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