Avoiding snowboarding injuries

It’s sad but true: you can get hurt while snowboarding. Usually it will be only a bruised ego if you fall down during your first day or two. But as with any sporting activity, some bad things can happen. This page is an attempt to provides a few things to think about, which may help put things in perspective.

Important note

This page is not written by a medical professional; if you wish to find medical advice about your particular situation, consult your doctor or other health care service provider. People can and do suffer serious injuries while snowboarding. Each year, a few even die. Then again, people suffer injury and death from work, auto accidents (1 in 85), and even drowning in a bath tub (1 in 9,298).

How does snowboarding compare to other activities?

It’s easy to imagine that snowboarding is an extremely risky activity. After all, it is still, after nearly two decades, an “extreme sport.” The public face of snowboarding, jumps in the halfpipe or a dozen feet in the air, suggests high glory–or severe pain. But it’s not that much different from skiing, its cousin with a less rambunctious reputation. Said one physician who has extensively studied snow sports injuries,

“In terms of injury rates, most ski physicians agree that boarding carries a slightly higher risk of injury than alpine skiing – around 4 injuries per thousand boarder days (as compared to 2-3 per thousand days for skier injuries). Remember though – that is still very low – at worst 0.4 percent.”

Given the very low rate, the authors of an article in the New Zealand-based journal Sports Medicine, invites us to look a bit deeper at the stereotypes:

“Snowboarding was initially considered a dangerous, uncontrolled, alpine sport – an opinion based on little or no scientific evidence. That evidence has rapidly grown over the past decade and we now know that snowboard injury rates are no different to those in skiing; however, the injury profile is different.”

We’ll get to the “different” in a moment, but let’s note first that for all its tendency to emphasize the dramatic side of life, even popular magazines can acknowledge that the bad-boy, ultra-high risk reputation of snowboarding can be exaggerated. In article about sporting activity by a high-risk population (adolescents), People magazine said that injuries from skateboarding, in-line skating, mountain biking and snowboarding “are hardly an epidemic: The percentage of people hurt in these sports is roughly the same or even smaller than the percentage hurt playing football or hockey.” (Alex Tresniowski et al, “Flying High, Falling Hard,” People, June 7, 2004).

There are many different factors to take into account when comparing injury rates for different activities. One, obviously, is the nature of the activity. Fatalities in golf (mainly, getting hit in the head by a golf ball) are going to be much fewer than those in mountain climbing, for example. Another factor is the age of the participants. Younger people will, in general, tend to take more risks within a given sport than older people–risks that can contribute to serious injury. A third factor in comparing injury rates across sports might be called the “unit of play” involved. A basketball game will, after the time in play is accounted for, take up much less time than a basketball game.

Given the difficulty in dealing with data, the desire to make comparisons is inevitable. The National Ski Areas Association combines statistics of snowboarding and skiing, but a superficial breakout of the two sports show that the number of deaths per million participants for both sports is less than for that of swimming and cycling, to name two other sports. When the number of fatalities (in 2003-04: 10) are adjusted for the number of days of participation, reflecting not simply the number of people, but amount of activity, snowboarding is more dangerous than cycling and less dangerous than swimming. It notes that in 2003, more people died from lightning strikes than from skiing and snowboarding combined.

What are the most common injuries?

The most common serious injuries are to the wrists, which make up more than 50 percent of all serious injuries take place. (K. Dann et al, Orthopade, May 2005)

Do wrist guards work?

Research done to date suggests that wrist guards are useful in preventing wrist injuries, especially for novice riders. At one resort, for example, one set of novice riders were given wrist guards, while another was not. The group that did not use wrist guards had an injury rate of 2.2 percent. The group that used the guards had zero injuries. Further, there was no evidence that wrist guards increased the risk of elbow or shoulder injuries. (Daniel Fulham O’Neill, “Wrist Injuries in Guarded Versus Unguarded First Time Snowboarders,” Clinical Orthopaedics & Related Research, April 2003).

Researchers in Canada looked at 19 ski areas and over 2,000 riders in Quebec. They concluded that use of wrist guards reduced the risk of injuries to the hand, wrist or forearm by 85 percent. (Brent Hagel et al, “The effect of wrist guard use on upper-extremity injuries in snowboarders,” American Journal of Epidemiology, July 15, 2005.)

The authors suggest that wrist guards may increase the risk of elbow or shoulder injury. But the increased risk of those injuries were not statistically significant, meaning at this point that the study found strong evidence of wrist guard’s benefits, but only speculation about their possible ill effects.

Are helmets effective?

Apparently so. “Helmets protect skiers and snowboarders against head injuries,” say one team of researchers, who found that helmets reduced the risk of head injuries by 29 percent. (B. Hagel et al., “Effectiveness of helmets in skiers and snowboarders: case-control and case crossover study,” British Medical Journal, February 2005).

Do people who use protective gear take more risks?

Does wearing protective gear introduce a false sense of security? Do people who wear gear negate its gear by increasing their risks?

Researchers in Canada looked at whether wearing helmets induced riders to act in ways that increased their risks of injury (specifically, “on-head, non-neck injuries”). The conclusion: “The results suggest that helmet use in skiing and snowboarding is not associated with riskier activities that lead to non-head-neck injuries.” (Brent Hagel et al. “The effect of helmet use on injury severity and crash circumstances in skiers and snowboarders,” Accident Prevention and Analysis, January 2005)

Do skiers and riders get the same injuries?

No. Riders are less likely to suffer knee injuries. One team of researchers in Columbus, Ohio examined the injuries that send skiers and snowboarders to emergency rooms in 2002. Almost 18 percent of snowboarding-related injuries (17.9 percent) were to the wrist, knee injuries (22.7 percent) were the most common injuries to skiers. (H. Xiang, “Skiing and snowboarding-related injuries treated in U.S. emergency departments, 2002,” Journal of Trauma, January 2005)

Many older snowboarders report that they came to snowboarder because skiing was getting to be too hard on their knees. Paula, for example, is a 60-year old woman from California. She told us, “For the record, I have bad knees and gave up skiing years ago because they hurt every time I skied. Took up snowboarding and that seems to be a lot better on my knees. They still hurt sometimes, but hardly ever when I’m riding. I also know another boarder, 69 years old, who has bad knees and gave up skiing for boarding.”

Another academic study found that snowboarders had a lower rate of injuries than skiers in the lower extremities, while they had a higher than average rate of injury for other injuries. (B. Hagel, “Injuries among skiers and snowboarders in Quebec,” Epidemiology, May 2004).

Snowboard riders–or more appropriately, snowboard jumpers–are more likely to suffer ankle fractures. (A. Vlahovich, “An Unusual Fracture of the Talus in a Snowboarder,” Journal of Orthopaedic Trauma, August 2005)

In addition, one team in New Zealand looked at the serious but rare case of spinal injuries. They found that injuries to snowboarders came more often through jumps, while those to skiers came from falls. (S Donald et al, “Are snowboarders more likely to damage their spines than skiers? Lessons learned from a study of spinal injuries from the Otago skifields in New Zealand,” New Zealand Medical Journal, June 2005)

Another set of researchers who looked at spinal cord injuries found that those injuries were rare, with those to snowboarders (0.04 for every 1,000 days) more frequent those to skiers (0.01 injury for every 1,000 days). The largest group of injured participants, not surprisingly, were those 15 to 25 years old. (Cory Toth et al, “Central Nervous System Injuries in Sport and Recreation,” Sports Medicine 2005, number 8.)

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