Snowboarders’ head injuries a growing concern

Date Published: 
December 20, 2013

Snowboarders will tell you shreddin’ the gnar delivers an incredible sense of freedom. It’s all about the thrill of the ride. Some call this Olympic sport the ultimate extreme winter activity because of the challenges and adrenalin rush that comes with it. One of the fastest rising sports in popularity, more than 6 million people are boarding every year in the U.S. alone.

Snowboarding enthusiasts are passionate about the downhill plunge and the challenges it brings. The trick is avoiding injury.

By now, you have read enough of my columns in Coastal Point to know that I am always going to encourage you to get out there and get some exercise. That said, you know that my support of healthy lifestyles and athletic pursuits comes with a warning: Get educated to stay safe.

Obviously, like skiing, there’s a range of injuries that can result from snowboarding, but a study released in February of this year has doctors warning that more research is needed to understand the full picture.

University of New Mexico researchers started the buzz with a study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine. The study focused on one ski resort in Taos. They found that the rate of closed head injuries more than doubled when snowboarders were allowed to take to the slope.

Doctors said this small snapshot should be a warning to everyone — including medical professionals. They said research on sports and head injuries has largely focused on sports such as football. Little has been done to examine their impact on snowboarding, or even skiing, for that matter.

That’s why taking care of yourself and the snowboarders in your household means you need to understand what the most common injuries are and what you can do to prevent them.

Falling is the leading cause of snowboarding injury. It makes sense when you think about it. Snowboard bindings are non-release and when you consider the various terrains and jumps, it’s logical.

Next on the list are collisions involving other boarders or skiers and non-moving objects, such as rocks and trees. Unlike skiing, most snowboarding injuries usually involve the upper extremities, including the head and wrists, but they are also quite common to knees and ankles.

Serious head injuries can result from crashes. Running into rocks, trees, hard snow and ice are the most common causes. Don’t think it’s about speed. Concussions are a serious risk even when you’re traveling at a slow speed. When you slip and fall backwards, the back of your head will take a big impact.

The best protection is a snowboard helmet. Understand that if you’re traveling at an extreme rate of speed and slam into a hard object, such as a tree, no helmet is going to offer total protection, but it gives you a first line of defense.

Proper fit is critically important when you’re choosing a helmet, and you want to get one that is specifically designed for snowboarding. Snowboard helmets offer strong protection for the sides of the head, which is a high-impact area.

Wrist injuries, including sprains and fractures, are commonly-occurring snowboard injuries. When boarders lose their balance and fall or slip backwards, like any of us, they tend to instinctively reach out to break that fall. When you try and break your fall with your hands, the impact is placed on your wrists.

You have two lines of defense to prevent wrist injuries. First, work on changing the way you fall. Try and keep your arms tucked in, and roll, so that the impact of the fall is spread over a larger part of your body.

I know that it’s tough to change habits, so get yourself a quality set of wrist guards. If you have a problem finding them, buy wrist guards that are made for skating. It might not seem like much, but they go a long way toward offering the protection you need.

Knee injuries occur more often in skiing, and they’re typically not as severe in snowboarding, but they do take their toll on boarders. Hard collisions, such as when you hit a rock, a tree or another person on the slopes, are a leading source of knee injuries. They also occur from a sharp turning motion or angle for which you aren’t properly positioned.

Knees are your shock absorbers, so you want to protect them. Knee guards are thick pads that will help you. The other part of the equation is working on your technique so that you can better absorb hard impacts.

Ankle injuries are so common for a few reasons. Gear is one of them. The equipment required for snowboarding and the force of the pressure that is placed on your ankles can cause sprains and fractures. Beginning boarders tend to wear soft boots, but the ankle movement they allow significantly increases the risk of injury, as compared to hard-shell boots or alpine boots.

Ankle injuries are also the result of hard sideways crashes, jumps and improper technique. Properly adjusting your binders will help with prevention, but you also need to look at ankle braces. There are many kinds of ankle braces that will give you good support and make a big difference in preventing these painful, recurring ankle injuries.

One last word of warning: If you’re into skiing, don’t think what works for you on the slopes for skiing works for the other. Snowboarding requires different skills and techniques. Take a lesson from a certified, experienced snowboard instructor, use the right gear and don’t forget face masks!

Snowboarders like to say there is no glory in practice, but without practice, there can be no glory. Rock those boards, but do it right.

Bob Cairo is a licensed physical therapist at Tidewater Physical Therapy. He can be-reached by calling (302) 537-7260.