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Playing Nice in the Snow and Ice

Stop Winter Sports Injuries in Their Tracks

Cold-weather activities like skiing, sledding, snowboarding and playing ice hockey epitomize wholesome winter fun, and parents are often shocked to learn about the dangers involved.

What makes winter sports so potentially dangerous? “Any time you have kids traveling down slick snow and ice at high speeds, there’s a risk of injury,” says Joe Guettler, MD, an orthopedic surgeon. Children are more susceptible to falls than adults, because their heads are relatively large in proportion to their bodies, and their center of gravity is higher, he says. And young bones have growth plates — areas of fibrous material where new bone is generated — that make them more prone to break than adult bones.

Don’t let fear of injury keep your family inside this winter. General safety precautions can help prevent injuries for all winter athletes. All kids should wear proper protective gear — especially a well-fitted helmet — and play by the rules of their respective sport. Warming up for 10-15 minutes also reduces the likelihood of injury by preparing muscles, tendons
and ligaments for work.

To further protect your children from winter sports injuries, follow these sport-specific strategies.

Skiing. Skis, boots and bindings should fit properly. Avoid walking around too much in ski boots because that can compromise their snug fit. Skiers should be extra attentive when getting on and off the ski lift, a time when many injuries happen. End the day on an easier run to prevent injuries due to fatigue.

Sledding. Collision is the biggest injury risk for sledders, says Dr. Guettler, and collisions can lead to catastrophic head injuries. “Parents think of sledding as a relatively benign activity,” he adds. “But there are real risks. Bones and ligaments — we can put those back together. But a head injury can cause lifelong damage.”

Because most collisions occur when sledders lose control of their sled, always choose a sled with a steering mechanism. Never allow sledding in wooded areas or near streets, and don’t allow children to walk across the sledding path. Helmets are a must.

Snowboarding. Upper body injuries, particularly wrist fractures, plague snowboarders, Dr. Guettler says. As with other downhill sports, there is a risk of head and neck injuries.

Along with a helmet, snowboarders should wear wristguards. Kids shouldn’t attempt tricks or runs that exceed their ability level — particularly late in the day when fatigue sets in. Check all gear regularly, especially bindings.

Ice Hockey. With more than 500,000 young participants nationwide, ice hockey is one of the country’s fastest-growing youth sports. Its fast pace can set the stage for injuries to the head, mouth, limbs and groin.

Young players should be able to skate forward and backward confidently before playing. Never let your child play without a helmet; hockey-specific shoulder, elbow, knee and shin pads; hockey pants with built-in padding (also called “breezers”); gloves; an athletic supporter and a mouthguard.

Taking a few extra minutes to stay safe is worthwhile because winter sports are fitness boons for kids and parents alike. Just ask Dr. Guettler, who skis regularly with his four young children. “Winter sports allow families to have fun and stay fit together,”he says. “The positive family time and the fitness benefits certainly outweigh the potential risk for injuries.” And fewer winter sports injuries mean more winter fun for the entire family.   

Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three. 

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