Big powder, bigger injuries

Go to almost any mountain resort and you’ll see that skiers and snowboarders are not alike. Even though snowboarding has been popular for nearly 30 years, there is still very little overlap between the two cultures.

This extends to injuries the participants receive as well. If you’ve ever done either, it’s easy to see that the mechanics of each are completely different. Sure, the end result is the same, in that you go from a higher elevation to a lower elevation while gliding over snow, but facing sideways with both feet strapped securely to a board is distinctly unlike facing forwards with each foot strapped less securely to skis that can go in different directions.

Fresh off the internet press from WEMJ comes this brief report on the injury patterns skiers and snowboarders receive at Big Sky. They examined the patient population of the medical clinic at the base of the mountain between 1995-2000, and again from 2009-2010 to see if there were any differences. They did this by way of prospective surveys given to patients when the arrived at the clinic. They received 1662 total, of which they used 1593 after excluding those with incomplete data. Right at 25% were snowboarders. The data they obtained is intriguing.

  • Skiers were 48% male, while snowboarders were 73% male
  • Skiers were 35.4 ±15.2 years old, while the average snowboarder was 23.6 ±9.5 (you kids get off my powder!)
  • The most common injury location for skiers was the knee (43%), followed by leg, then shoulder
  • Snowboarders injure their wrists (19%) most, then their shoulder

They went further into the injuries to pull out the ICD-9 codes for each participant. What is shocking is that the most common specific diagnosis for skiers was torn cruciate ligament at 10.6%, and knee ligament sprain/strain was 25%. Conversely, for snowboarders, 10.1% of ICD-9 codes were for fractures of the radius or ulna.

If you separate injuries by self-reported skill levels, you find that snowboarders are more likely to be injured at the beginner skill level (31%), whereas skiers are more likely to be injured in the “advanced intermediate” skill level at 37%. “Extreme” skiers and snowboarders are over-represented on ESPN, but both only represent single digit percentages of the injured in this series. The authors attribute this to the difficulty in staying upright while learning to snowboard causing upper extremity injuries, while skiers get more adventurous as they advance in skill level, leading to injuries at speed when they overestimate their abilities. As snowboarders advance in skill level, they are less likely to injure their wrists and more likely to injure their lower bodies. Skiers keep the same injury patterns as they advance in skill.

Sadly, they have no data for the severe injuries that were transported to higher levels of care than their mountainside clinic. Also not commented on in the paper, but apparent on looking at the data is that head injuries in snowboarders went down significantly from 7.8% to 0.0%. Since there is no discussion, it is left up to the reader to wonder if perhaps the use of helmets is the cause of this decline, or if there is some other factor in play.

Bonus ski joke: There are 206 bones in the human body, but don’t worry. There are two bones in the middle ear that haven’t been broken while skiing.

Coury T, Napoli AM, Wilson M, Daniels J, Murray R, Milzman D. Injury patterns in recreational alpine skiing and snowboarding at a mountainside clinic. Wilderness Environ Med. 2013 Dec;24(4):417-21. [PMID 24138836]

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EBM Gone Wild

Wilderness Medicine

Emergency physician with interests in wilderness and prehospital medicine. Medical Director of the Texas State Aquarium, Padre Island National Seashore, Robstown EMS, and Code 3 ER | EBM gone Wild | @EBMGoneWild |

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