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Safety 101 for Winter Sports Enthusiasts

Last updated: November 11, 2021

A little cold weather won’t deter Wisconsinites from getting out and about. We’ll drive in several inches of snow, tailgate in subzero temperatures, and even take a plunge into ice cold water.

But even a hearty bunch like us needs to exercise a few precautions before we partake in our favorite winter activities. Whether you prefer braving the cold to hit the slopes, or shooting some hoops indoors, here are some pointers to keep in mind.

Know the Risks

Maybe you’re interested in trying something new. Or perhaps you’re a seasoned winter sports vet who could use a few safety refreshers. Either way, it’s a good idea to understand winter hazards and how to avoid them.

We spoke with Dr. Nickolas Linkous, Orthopedic Sports Surgeon at ThedaCare, to learn more about the top risks — and resulting injuries — of winter sports.

“ACL injuries are common in the winter because they typically result from sudden stops or changes in direction, pivoting, landing awkwardly following a jump, or a direct blow to the knee,” he says. “Skiing and basketball are two winter sports that often involve these types of movements.”

Dr. Linkous also warned of an increasing incident rate for concussions during the winter sports season.

“When the snow starts getting packed, your risk of falling — and falling hard — increases,” he says. “Those who participate in ice skating and downhill activities like sledding, tobogganing, skiing, and snowboarding can experience a concussion if they aren’t careful.” 

When the snow starts getting packed, your risk of falling — and falling hard — increases.

Dr. Nickolas Linkous, Sports Surgeon, ThedaCare Orthopedic Care

Other bone and joint injuries common in slippery weather conditions and repetitive-motion activities include:

  • Broken collar bone
  • Dislocated shoulder
  • Torn rotator cuff
  • Knee injuries
  • Back strains and pulls
  • Ankle sprains
  • Elbow injuries

Start with the Basics

Like any season, and any sport for that matter, a little preparation can go a long way in helping to prevent injury. This includes incorporating appropriate warm-up and stretching exercises, remaining aware of your surroundings and footing, checking equipment prior to use, and staying hydrated.

“It’s just as important to stay hydrated in the winter as it is in the summer,” Dr. Linkous says. “People tend to think more often about hydration during the hot, summer months, but it can be critical during the winter, too.”  

In addition to paying attention to what you’re putting in your body, you should also consider what you’re putting on. Depending on the sport, dressing safely and appropriately for the activity may include wearing:

  • Warm layers for quickly changing weather conditions
  • Padding, guards, helmets, and other protective gear, particularly for downhill activities and high-contact sports
  • Properly fitting shoes and skates

Don’t Go It Alone

When participating in any kind of winter activity — especially outdoors — its best to have someone accompany you.

“Just because we live in an age where most everyone has a cellphone with them most of the time, it doesn’t mean we should get complacent about safety,” Dr. Linkous says. “Your connection could be unreliable, your phone could break or get lost if you fall, or you could find yourself in an immobile or unconscious state where you can’t operate it yourself. An orthopedic injury can become a more serious situation if it occurs outside, in the cold, with no one around to help you.”   

The same holds true for those whose winter sport of choice is hunting. If you do venture out into separate areas, make sure someone knows where you’re headed and can stay in contact with you. It’s also a good idea to avoid consuming alcohol when climbing tree stands, operating a firearm or bow, and relying on your senses to make sound judgement. Finally, make sure you’re adequately harnessed to avoid a fall.

Know When to Take a Break

Listen to your body. One of the most common causes of injury is athletes pushing themselves too far.

“It’s cold out, so sometimes it’s harder to realize how tired and fatigued you’re getting,” Dr. Linkous says. “It may be tempting to get in one last run down the ski hill or practice that jump one more time, but when you’re fatigued and nearing the end of a long day of activity, you’re especially susceptible to injury. That’s when many of the accidents we see tend to occur.”

If you do encounter a minor sprain or strain, tend to it as soon as possible using the R.I.C.E. method:

  • REST the injured area
  • ICE it for 15 to 20 minutes every two hours
  • COMPRESS the injured area to reduce swelling by using a compression wrap like an Ace bandage, or something similar
  • ELEVATE the injured area to a level higher than the heart, or as close to it as possible

Complete a Sports Physical

Whether you’re participating in a winter sport or have a child involved in one, the most important precaution you can take is practicing common sense. For school age kids — particularly those who only participate in winter sports — this means completing a sports physical.

“No matter what time of year a sports physical occurs, the intention is the same,” Dr. Linkous says. “This is an important opportunity to ensure your child doesn’t have any pre-existing conditions or orthopedic injuries or conditions that put them at elevated risk. It’s also vital to check the child’s cardiovascular health.”

Regardless of your age or sport of choice, it’s important to note that winter sports can pose dangers if not approached in a careful and thoughtful manner.

“Make smart choices to avoid getting hurt. If you do suffer an injury, have have a medical professional examine it as soon as possible to avoid complications,” Dr. Linkous says. “Staying active during the winter months is great for your physical and mental health, as long as you approach it with safety top of mind.”

Gearing up for the winter sports season? Schedule your annual physical today!

Tags: ice skating orthopedics skiing sledding snowboarding winter sports safety

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