It’s a skier or snowboarder’s worst nightmare: a season-ending injury in November.
No one wants to end his or her season on a ski patrol sled, worse yet before it really even really gets underway. Following Friday’s story, “Instructors offer tips on easing into ski season,” we decided to add a doctor to the discussion. We spoke with Dr. Rick Cunningham, of Vail Summit Orthopedics and the U.S. Ski Team, about what he’s seen in his office already this season and how to best prevent a potential season-ender in November.
“We can almost predict the type of injuries we will see with snow conditions,” Cunningham said. Harder packed snow tends to cause more fractures, and deeper snow leads to more knee injuries, he said.
This year, however, has been a little different. “I’ve seen a surprising number of ACL tears this early in the season,” he said. “Typically heavier snow brings in ACLs.”
Many of the injuries Cunningham has treated this year have been terrain park related.
“Those hard landings when there’s not much coverage, the force is such that you can have more long-bone fractures. The ground is less forgiving,” he said of early season conditions. His recommendation was don’t go too big too soon.
Cunningham has also noticed an alarming trend.
“By and large I see a lot of young people in their teens and 20s” and, unfortunately, an increasing number of 12- to 17-year-olds suffering serious injuries.
“Ten, 12 years ago we didn’t see as much of it,” he said.
He also recommended exercising caution early in the season with regard to traffic on the hill.
“On these days when not much terrain is open, collisions are common.” Injuries from collision can range from concussions to broken bones and torn ligaments, Cunningham said.
As to avoiding injury, he echoed the sentiments of the instructors we spoke with earlier in the week.
“If there is was a word of caution: ease into the season.”
One pattern he said he’d seen was people trying to do big tricks in the park early in the season.
“It’s not like you stopped skiing a week ago,” he said. “You’re not up to the same ability.” He cautioned against attempting tricks a skier or rider might have successfully completed at the end of last season.
In addition to using caution, Cunningham said, preseason conditioning is one of the better ways to avoid injuries.
“If someone doesn’t have good core strength, they’re going to be in the backseat position” and, as a result, more susceptible to injury.
“Good hip strengthening helps prevent knee injuries,” he said.
While knee injuries are more common in skiers, Cunningham said he also sees them in snowboarders. Snowboarders, he added, are more likely to injure upper extremities — wrists, shoulders, etc.
Cunningham closed with two additional thoughts.
He suggested skiing or riding loose. Instructors call it an athletic stance, flexing and extending with turns and terrain. Skiing or snowboarding with a rigid stance, commonly seen in intermediate or beginner skiers and riders, will have more of an impact on joints and place a skier or rider at a higher risk for injury.
“Be like an accordion with your lower extremities,” he said. Absorbing shock in a jump is especially important.
Finally, like the instructors we spoke with, Cunningham said that when falling it’s usually best to go with the fall and not try to recover.
He cited a recent study showing a correlation between attempting to recover from a fall and injuries occurring as a result.
“That’s how the largest number of World Cup skiers tore their ACL,” he said.
With those suggestions in mind, consider using caution in the early season. It might just lead to more time on the snow — and help avoid a personal introduction to the fine folks at Vail Orthopedics.