Can I prevent injuries when hitting the slopes? 7 questions with orthopedic surgeon Lee Stowell, M.D.

By Kristy Bleizeffer Dec 4, 2016

How do you make sure your trip to the slopes doesn’t turn into a trip to the emergency room? It’s all about conditioning.

With every good snow, skiers and snowboarders flock to Hogadon or another one of Wyoming’s great ski lodges. For some, a trip to the slope may be followed by a trip to the emergency room.

It doesn’t have to, says Lee Stowell, M.D., of Advantage Orthopedics and Neurosurgery. With proper training and conditioning, many injuries are preventable. Here, he answers seven questions about snow-related injuries.

1. What are some of the common snow-sport injuries you see?

We really see the full spectrum of injuries this time of year, everything from severe trauma and broken bones to simple overuse type injuries.  They can affect anything from fingers and hands to spine, knees and ankles.

Accidental injuries typically include knees, ankles and thumb sprains for skiers, especially if our bodies are not conditioned for the activity. Wrist, shoulder and head injuries are more common for snowboarders.

2. Are any of these injuries preventable? 

A lot of the overuse type injuries, or non-contact injuries, can usually be prevented. After a good snow, some people have a tendency to go at their sport in a really aggressive way before their bodies are ready for it. That can really wear people out and cause these preventable overuse injuries.

Conditioning your body beforehand, using proper technique and resting fatigued muscles can help. Most skiing and snowboarding injuries happen toward the end of the day when the athlete is tired and not using good form or the best judgment.

Finally, using the right equipment such as helmets, wrist guards and eye protection can prevent some contact-type injuries.

3. What kind of conditioning do you recommend before hitting the slopes?

Maintaining good physical health and strength prior to snow-sports season, and throughout the year for that matter, is an important part of preventing many of these injuries.

I would suggest athletes train their core muscles and the big muscle groups of the legs. This will help with your balance and maintaining good form when you are on the mountain. These muscles are really critical to maintaining your body for the whole ski season.

4. When there is an accident, how can people tell the difference between a break and a sprain? 

A lot of times, it’s fairly difficult to tell the difference between a break and a sprain on your own. It usually requires an x-ray or some kind of advanced testing.

As a general rule, if you don’t regain basic use and function of your arm, ankle or another part of your body fairly quickly, it needs to be evaluated – either through your family doctor, Immediate Care, or through the Emergency Room if needed.

5. What is your advice to younger athletes or recreational sportsmen who ignore pain so they can keep doing what they love?

Small repetitive injuries that continuously go unnoticed, untreated and uncorrected can lead to more catastrophic injuries later. It’s important for kids, and adults, to be honest about their pain. Parents and coaches should talk to their kids and athletes about finding that balance between giving your all and protecting your body from injury.

6. This is also good advice for spring athletes who will hit the field or court when the snow melts?

Absolutely. Training in the off-season and keeping your body in good physical shape will help prevent a lot of injuries in whatever sport you participate. Sports medicine is all about keeping you healthy so you can participate in the activities you enjoy, whatever those may be.

7. Describe your sports medicine background.

I did a lot of sport team coverage and was a team physician for several professional teams during training.  I was the team doctor for several of the professional baseball teams during spring training, including the Texas Rangers.  I have also been a team physician for a semi-pro hockey team, a junior college and multiple high schools.

I really do like working with athletes, especially some of the college and high school level kids.

R. Lee Stowell

R. Lee Stowell M.D.

Dr. Lee Stowell is an orthopedic surgeon and completed a fellowship in shoulder surgery at the CORE Institute in Phoenix. He was selected chief resident of the Orthopaedic Surgery Residency Program at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center-Hamot; Shriners Hospital for Children in Erie, Pa.