Every year, hundreds of skiers and snowboarders are injured in accidents on the slopes. January is National Ski Safety Month, and with a new ski and snowboard season underway, it’s a great time to share some tips to keep you safe on the slopes.

Most common ski injuries

Any part of the body can be injured while skiing and snowboarding, but the most common ski injuries happen to the knees, bones of the legs, and head. Most frequently, skiers will incur tears to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), medial collateral ligament (MCL), or meniscus. Upper body injuries can happen, mostly when a skier falls—landing on the shoulder or chest at high speeds can lead to broken collarbones or ribs. Hand and wrist injuries can also occur, especially when holding onto the ski poles while falling—the skier's hand can get caught in the strap and get pulled out of place when the skier hits the ground, leading to injured hand ligaments and wrist injuries.

Most common snowboard injuries

Unlike skiing injuries, most snowboarding injuries tend to happen in the upper body of the snowboarder. This happens because snowboarders are directly connected to the board and cannot easily disconnect from the equipment, so riders tend to fall with their arms out. This leads to many wrist fractures. Snowboarding boots tend to be less stabilizing than ski boots, so ankle injuries are prevalent. One condition, in which the ligaments on the outside of the ankle are strained, has been nicknamed "snowboarder's ankle" because it happens so frequently to snowboarders.

In both skiing and snowboarding, head injuries are a leading cause of death.

Preventing skiing and snowboarding injuries

Many snow sport injuries can be prevented by taking simple precautions before getting on the lift and by practicing mountain safety.

Learn how to fall properly

It may seem silly, but knowing how to fall, and practicing it until it becomes second nature, is one of the best ways to reduce or prevent injuries on the slopes. Take the time to practice falling safely, including closing your fists to help reduce hand and wrist injuries. Bring your arms in if possible to further help reduce injuries to arms and upper body.

Take the time to stretch

It’s important to condition your body and muscles beforehand to have the most enjoyable and safest experience. In addition to regular year-round exercise, pay special attention to working your quads, hamstrings, and core. A good daily warmup and adequate stretching will help build mental as well as muscle strength and help prevent physical injury.

Protective gear for skiing and snowboarding

Most people who enjoy snow sports know to wear helmets—nearly 90 percent of all skiers and riders reported wearing helmets in the last few years. In fact, you rarely see skiers today without helmets. In addition to wearing protective headgear, consider wearing sunglasses or goggles, dress appropriately for the physical elements, and use ski equipment that fits you properly. This includes protective wrist guards with plates on the front and back of the hand. Wear protective gear any time you hit the slopes.

Know your limits

Did you know most ski injuries occur during the last run of the day? Remember to listen to your body. It’s best to stop skiing before you feel too tired—and that might mean skipping that last run of the day. The good news is you’ll likely be skipping a resulting physical injury in the process.

Know your conditions

Skiing in the eastern U.S., with its hard-packed snow and ice, offers a very different experience from the powdery snow you commonly find in the west. Brush up on where you’ll be skiing before you go to avoid unnecessary injuries.

Don’t forget these other safety tips:

  • Watch weather conditions, as they can change quickly.
  • Ski on trails geared to your skill level.
  • Respect trail rules.
  • Take personal responsibility and pay attention to those around you.

If a ski or snowboarding injury occurs

Even with the best prevention efforts, injuries can still occur. If you sustain an injury on the slopes, get medical help immediately. If you find yourself experiencing pain after a skiing or snowboarding trip, call your doctor or orthopedic specialist for a consultation. At the Lifespan Orthopedics Institute, our sports medicine team can help you heal and get ready for your next day on the slopes.

Wishing you safe skiing and riding this winter.

Michael Staebler, MD

Dr. Michael Staebler is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon with Lifespan Orthopedics Institute at Newport Hospital. He specializes in operative and nonoperative treatment of sports injuries in children and adults.