7 of the most common winter sports injuries
Almost all winter sports injuries heal predictably well and patients can return to sport no later than the following season
For the Summit Daily
Editor’s Note: Sponsored content brought to you by Vail-Summit Orthopaedics and Neurosurgery
While we aim to get through every winter season injury-free, winter sports injuries are inevitable in mountain towns. If you haven’t been injured, chances are you know someone who has.
Thankfully, most winter sports injuries heal predictably and patients can get back to their beloved activities by the next season, regardless of whether the injury required surgery, said Dr. Terrell Joseph, an orthopaedic surgeon specializing in ski and snowboard trauma at Vail-Summit Orthopaedics and Neurosurgery.
While the orthopaedic doctors at VSON are trained to deal with every sports injury imaginable, here are the most common winter sports injuries they see each year in Summit and Eagle counties.
Any snowboarder knows that learning this sport wasn’t easy. Beginner snowboarders often spend the majority of their time falling down, instinctively trying to break the fall with their hands. This leads to distal radius (wrist) fractures, Dr. Joseph said.
“My advice is to wear wrist guards, especially if you’re learning to snowboard, and when the conditions are really hard and icy,” Dr. Joseph said.
If you think you’ve only sprained your wrist and choose not to see a doctor, Dr. Joseph said a fracture could be underlying if the pain lasts more than 1 to 2 weeks. Swelling and bruising are other indicators of a fracture and not just a sprain.
The medial collateral ligament (MCL) in the knee is one of the most common skiing injuries each season. This is due to the rotary torque on the ski, which tends to affect the knees because they’re the first mobile joints above the thick construct above a ski boot, Dr. Joseph said.
Patients describe an MCL injury as a tweak to the inside of the knee. You may feel a tearing sensation or pain on the inside of the knee. There might be some pain with weight-bearing, but people can typically walk after an MCL injury. If there’s pain on the inside when you straighten the knee, that’s a clue that it might be the MCL.
“MCL sprains and tears are very predictable healers and typically don’t need surgery,” Dr. Joseph said. “Usually, patients can wear a brace and they’ll heal in 3 to 6 weeks.”
The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is a more severe injury than an MCL injury. Dr. Joseph said the ACL tears due to a twisting motion. Skiers usually describe a rotary torque after falling into their back seat, which can even happen at slow speeds. Swelling occurs almost immediately.
“If the knee swells up and turns into the size of an orange or canteloupe, that’s a big red flag,” Dr. Joseph said. “Most MCLs don’t swell very much.”
Dr. Joseph suggests trying to avoid skiing in a back-seat stance, and he strongly recommends taking it easy at the end of the ski day.
“Avoid pushing it at the end of the day — we see a lot more ACL injuries at the end of the day, when you’re tired and your quads are less protective.”
Any active person that tears an ACL will likely require surgery if they intend on returning to any activities that require twisting and pivoting, since those are the motions the ACL controls. Surgeons will either use a patient’s own anatomy to reconstruct a new ligament, or they’ll use cadaver tissue.
Recovery time is about 6 months for the new ACL graft to grow into the bone. Physical therapy, while demanding, plays an important role in regaining function and returning to sport. That being said, ACL surgeries are about 95 percent successful.
“It’s a good surgery and it works,” Dr. Joseph said.
Meniscus tear (often happen in conjunction with ACL)
The meniscus is a C-shaped piece of cartilage that functions as a shock absorber between the shin and thigh. A meniscus tear occurs simultaneously with an ACL tear in at least half of ACL injury patients, Dr. Joseph said. Meniscus tear symptoms include joint pain on the inside of the knee, or laterally on the outside of the knee.
About 10 percent of meniscus tears can be repaired. In the other 90 percent, surgeons will trim out the torn flap.
Tibial plateau fracture
A tibial plateau fracture occurs after trauma to the top of the tibia (shinbone). Because this area of the body is critical in weight-bearing, a fracture means you won’t be able to bear any weight on that leg.
“If you have an injury on the mountain and you go to put weight on it and your brain says ‘no way,’ listen to your brain,” Dr. Joseph said.
Most tibial plateau fractures will need to be fixed with surgery, but the good news is that surgery is successful and recovery is quick — they heal in about 8 weeks.
AC separation (shoulder)
The acromioclavicular (AC) joint separation is equally as common in skiers as it is in snowboarders, Dr. Joseph said. The injury an a ligament injury that usually happens after a direct blow to the shoulder.
The good news is this injury doesn’t usually need surgery and patients usually heal on their own after about 6 to 8 weeks of rest.
Clavicle fracture (broken collarbone)
A clavicle fracture often happens when a fall onto the shoulder or an outstretched arm puts so much pressure on the collarbone that it snaps or breaks. A badly displaced clavicle fracture will need to be surgically fixed with a plate and screws, but these patients do exceptionally well with about a 100 percent healing rate, Dr. Joseph said.
“And they’re usually very happy with the fix and can immediately return to light use of the shoulder,” he said.
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