The most common winter sports injuries and how they are treated

Whilst the snow and cold weather encourages many of us to stay indoors - particularly when it comes to exercise - those who enjoy skiing and snowboarding cannot wait to hit the slopes for what can be some of the most effective and exhilarating exercise available

However, as enjoyable as winter sports are, the cold weather, icy conditions, heavy equipment and speed on the slopes can often lead to injury, such as knee, shoulder and hand injuries.

We asked Professor Len Funk, shoulder surgeon, and Mr Neil Jain, consultant orthopaedic surgeon, from The Wilmslow Hospital, part of HCA Healthcare UK, to tell us about the most common injuries caused by skiing and snowboarding and how they are treated.

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Knee injuries are the most common

The knees work pretty hard during most sporting activities and are a common site of injury, but knee injuries are particularly common in skiers because of the amount of twisting and turning movements, unruly skis and the risk of falling on the knee. The winter sports injuries to the knee we see most of include:

Torn ligaments

The Medial Collateral Ligament (MCL) and the Anterior and Posterior Cruciate Ligaments (ACL/PCL), which are the ligaments which stabilise your knees, are frequently torn in skiers because of sudden twisting while the feet are planted, falling backwards, falling awkwardly or sometimes even as a result of being hit by another skier.

You may hear a popping sound when tearing a ligament and will likely experience immediate swelling, pain, tenderness and difficulty walking.

The MCL is the most commonly injured ligament and can almost always be treated without the need for surgery. Torn Anterior and Posterior Cruciate ligaments usually heal naturally with rest and are treated with short-term pain medication. In more severe cases, or where the tear doesn’t heal naturally, surgery may be an option.

A torn meniscus

The meniscus is the cartilage that sits between the bones in in your knee joint and acts as a shock absorber. Tears in the meniscus usually happen due to sudden turning or twisting motions, slipping or landing awkwardly, or landing with too much pressure on your knees.

With a torn meniscus you will usually experience swelling, pain and difficulty putting weight on the knee.

Treatment usually includes a combination of anti-inflammatory and steroid medications with physical therapy, but more serious cases may require surgery.

Ankle injuries

Fractured Talus bone - ‘Snowboarder’s Ankle’

Your Talus bone is located above your heel bone on the outside of your ankle. A fractured Talus bone is a common injury in winter sports as you’re prone to twist or roll your ankle. In fact, it’s so common in snowboarding that it has come to be known as ‘Snowboarders Ankle’. Ankle sprains are also common in both skiers and snowboarders for the same reason.

A fractured Talus bone will usually need a cast and will take around six to eight weeks to heal, whereas mild sprains can be treated with an ice pack, over-the-counter painkillers and elevation. If you have injured your ankle it’s important to seek treatment right away and to take the weight off your ankle or it may make the injury more serious.

Shoulder injuries

Dislocated shoulder

Your shoulder joint is a lot more mobile than your other joints, so it’s easier for it to slip out of place. Snowy and icy conditions inevitably lead to falls - often at speed - so the risk of dislocated shoulders is quite high in winter sports, either from using your arms to break a fall or landing on a hard surface like ice.

If you have a fall, particularly if you think you have dislocated your shoulder - which will be very painful, you must seek help immediately as a delay in care can lead to a frozen and totally immobile shoulder in more severe cases.

In the case of a dislocated shoulder, your joint will need to be put back into place by an orthopaedic doctor. You will be able to go home after your joint is back in place and will need to wear a sling for a few days to reduce the pain. It usually takes around 14 weeks for the shoulder to heal once the joint is back in place.

Torn Rotator Cuff

This is another shoulder injury which happens because of repetitive strain, or because of a fall, and often occurs at the same time as a dislocated shoulder.

Torn Rotator Cuffs are usually treated with a combination of physical therapy and injections to relieve pain.

Hand and wrist injuries

Wrist sprains and finger fractures

Because of the natural instinct to put out our arms when we fall, it puts our hands and wrists at risk of injury as they often become the first part of our body to take the impact of a fall.

Wrist sprains can usually be treated with rest and ice, but if pain persists the injury may need further treatment. Finger fractures will usually need splinting and in some cases, surgery. 

Skiers’ Thumb

A torn ligament in the thumb, which is known as ‘skiers’ thumb’ because of how often they occur, frequently occur when falling over with your hand in the ski pole strap. Your thumb gets pulled away from your hand, which can cause the ligament in the thumb joint to tear.

Skiers Thumb is typically treated with a cast or splint, and in some cases, surgery will be required.

Staying safe and preventing injury

The chance of having an injury can be greatly reduced by being properly prepared and by following important winter sports safety advice. If you are getting ready to brave the cold for some winter fun, here are some tips to help keep you safe and injury free.

When accidents happen on the slopes

We hope you stay safe this winter sports season but sometimes, despite taking precautions and being safe, accidents still happen and people get hurt. When that happens, the first step is to get help immediately.

The second step is to find the best treatment for your injury. At The Wilmslow Hospital our orthopaedic specialists work together to diagnose and treat the full range of orthopaedic conditions, providing the very best care to help you get back to your life.

Our orthopaedic care services at The Wilmslow Hospital cover all areas of the musculoskeletal system, such as hip and pelvis, knee, shoulder elbow, the spine, the hand and wrist, the foot and ankle and the peripheral nerve.

If you are concerned about a new injury or pain, or have an ongoing, chronic issue which is impacting your daily life, speak to a member of the team at The Wilmslow Hospital to arrange a consultation with a leading orthopaedic consultant.

Call 01625 545 000 for more information.