Stay safe this ski season

Jan. 22, 2018

No one wants a good day on the slopes to end with a visit to the emergency room. But sometimes, it happens.

Two skiers ski down a snowy slope with sun in the background.
Learn how to stay safe on the ski slopes.

“It’s not just beginner skiers getting hurt. It happens to even the most expert skiers,” said Dr. Laura Sehnert, an emergency medicine physician and director of medical staff affairs at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. “And it can happen really fast.”

Below, Sehnert gives tips for avoiding the most common ski and snowboard injuries that are seen in the emergency department.

Knee injuries:

At the top of the list are knee injuries, especially tears and partial tears to the ACL, or anterior cruciate ligament.

“A lot of times, you’ll end up needing surgery, which can be a real season-ender,” Sehnert said. “So it’s one we definitely want to avoid.”

Unfortunately, all it takes to injure your knee is one awkward fall.

“You may try to resist the fall, so your knee and leg are falling one way and the rest of you is leaning the other way,” Sehnert said. The resulting stress and twisting motion can tear the ligament.

To avoid knee injuries, learn techniques for falling well and add in some pre-season core strengthening and overall conditioning. Sehnert also recommends strengthening the quads and hamstrings by doing classic wall sits, squats, side planks and side-to-side “skater” exercises.

And watch out for changing conditions: warm, grabby snow can make knee injuries more likely.

Wrist, shoulder and hand injuries:

Shoulder dislocations and separations, broken or sprained wrists, and thumb injuries can happen when you put your hand out to catch yourself in a fall.

“It’s called a ‘FOOSH,’ or fall on outstretched hand,” Sehnert said. “With the force of the impact, often something will give, whether it is the bones or the soft tissues.”

Skier’s thumb, or a tear to the ulnar collateral ligament, can result from falling while holding poles and might ultimately require surgery.

Head injuries:

Concussions and other head injuries are most common when skiing at high speeds or in the trees.

To avoid a head injury, be cautious when visibility is low and make sure you stay on terrain that’s within your abilities. Don’t ski if you are under the influence of alcohol or other drugs including marijuana, and always wear a helmet.

“Everyone should wear a helmet, every time,” she said. “If you do have a significant crash with a helmet, it’s time to invest in a new one.”

It’s also wise to beware the last run of the day. “You have to know when to say when,” Sehnert said. “If your body is tired, you shouldn’t push for that last run because that’s a very common time for a ski injury to occur.”

If you do end up with an injury, take heart knowing you’re in good hands. Average wait time for the last 5,500 emergency care patients at YVMC was a mere eight minutes to see a board-certified emergency medicine physician, and experienced trauma surgeons and orthopedists are on call and available around the clock.

Plus, physical therapists from the UCHealth SportsMed Clinic are available to help with bracing, crutch training, icing and other treatments, and even home exercise programs. “We have a spectacular physical therapy department on staff in the emergency department during the winter months,” Sehnert said. “It’s a very unique set-up. Most ED’s don’t offer that level of service.”

By taking steps to avoid an injury, you can help ensure your ski season is a good one.

“We’re blessed to live in this amazing place and I want people to have an amazing and full season,” Sehnert. “But also be aware that injuries can happen and do everything you can to avoid them.”


This article first appeared in the Steamboat Pilot & Today on Dec. 4, 2017.

Susan Cunningham writes for UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at [email protected].



About the author

Susan Cunningham lives in the Colorado Rocky Mountains with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys science nearly as much as writing: she’s traveled to the bottom of the ocean via submarine to observe life at hydrothermal vents, camped out on an island of birds to study tern behavior, and now spends time in an office writing and analyzing data. She blogs about writing and science at