As skiers and snowboarders prepare to flock to the slopes, a Geisinger physician offers advice for staying safe this winter season.

"There is always a risk of suffering injuries during physical activities, and skiing and snowboarding are no exception," said orthotraumatologist Wade Smith, Vice-Chairman of Orthopedics for Geisinger Health System. "Due to the nature of these sports, many of the injuries that skiers and snowboarders suffer are serious and require immediate medical attention."

According to Dr. Smith, head injuries are the most dangerous injury facing these winter sports enthusiasts. Several celebrities have died after suffering head trauma on the slopes, including Natasha Richardson, Sonny Bono and Michael Kennedy, son of Robert Kennedy. Skiers and snowboarders who take a hill too fast or don't pay attention to their surroundings can be susceptible to violent falls or collisions, which can cause severe injury to their head or neck.

"Head injuries on the slopes can range from benign incidents, such as minor cuts or bruises, to serious issues that require medical attention, including concussions, fractured skulls and brain hemorrhaging," Dr. Smith said. "These types of serious head injuries require rapid treatment, and can lead to brain damage, major blood loss and even death."

Skiers and snowboarders should be mindful of others on the slopes, watch for patches of ice or rocks, and never attempt a hill too fast or too steep for their ability level. An estimated 8 million skiers hit the slopes each year, and fatalities usually range between 30 and 60 per season.

"Skiers and snowboarders of all ages should wear a helmet to protect against major head trauma in the event of a crash," Dr. Smith said.

Knee injuries are the most common type of injury sustained by skiers and snowboarders, according to Dr. Smith. Studies estimate these injuries accounts for between 25 and 40 percent of all injuries on the slopes. Knee injuries can range from sprains to major ligament tears such as the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) or meniscus cruciate ligament (MCL).

"Knee injuries are often very painful and can require surgery and extensive rehab," said Dr. Smith. "A torn meniscus, for example, a common ski injury, can result in sharp pain and occasionally arthroscopic surgery. A torn ACL requires arthroscopic surgery, rehab and physical therapy that can last from four months to more than a year."

Keeping your knees bent while in motion can help ease stress on the knees, and falling when you feel yourself lose your balance, rather than trying to fight your fall, can help prevent injury, Dr. Smith said.

Skiers and snowboarders are also at risk for fractures. Snowboarders who use their arms to brace a fall can fracture their arm or wrist. Skiers can fracture their legs or ankles if the ski bindings fail to release during a fall, said Dr. Smith. Fractures to the tailbone or collarbone also can occur as a result of a fall. Treatments and recovery times vary depending on the severity and location of the fracture, but they are often painful and sometimes require surgery and physical therapy, he added.

"Many of the injuries skiers and snowboarders suffer are a result of falls or collisions," Dr. Smith said. "It's important that each person knows their limits on the slopes, and that they pay attention to conditions and skiers or snowboarders around them. Failure to do so can result in a range of injuries and cause serious physical harm to themselves and those around them."

Geisinger Health System

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