Snowboarding: Human body no match for gravity

My career in snowboarding was very brief. Giving it a try more than a few years ago, I found it trying.

I thought it a good idea to take lessons, despite the common wisdom suggesting a shorter learning curve for boarding compared to skiing. For me, the snowboarding curve involved a more-than-generous number of fairly rough, upper-body slams. I did not progress very far – I stuck with skiing.

In the emergency room, years ago, I don’t recall seeing many snowboarders and certainly not many with lower extremity injuries – it’s almost as if the legs are splinted together and the board, shorter than many skis, may generate less torque. Nonetheless, with more people snowboarding and the sport growing, snowboarders have joined the ranks of the injured in the ER, but with different patterns of injury. In the last 15 to 20 years, studies of snowboarder injuries come from a number of countries: the U.S., Australia, Japan, Germany, England, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland and others.

Some injury patterns are intuitively obvious, such as the upper-body slams mentioned above. A Japanese study of more than 2,000 snowboarders averaging age 24 and injured over a 10-year period, shows falls causing 71 percent of injuries in beginners. Falls and collisions, 41 percent and 32 percent, respectively, were causal in the group of more advanced boarders, who had more facial and head injuries. Could speed be the skulking culprit? Nasty intracranial injuries were 3 percent of those with helmets, 2 percent in those without. The number of head injuries is admittedly small, and the difference may not be statistically significant.

Through a seven-year period, in a region with an annual snowfall of 28 inches, a pediatric trauma center admitted 57 boarders and 22 skiers. There was an almost even frequency of abdominal injuries, but a slightly increased number of busted spleens in boarders. Again, the study numbers are small, 57 and 22. Perhaps the significant figure is “28 inches” – suggestive of “Eastern” powder, (aka hard pack and ice). When things were really icy back there, the ER saw concussions, neck injuries, upper extremity fractures, even pelvic fractures in “boiler plate” conditions.

A study of snowboarders, in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, focused on injuries from an FIS Snowboard World Cup in Norway, that recorded the number of runs (46,879), including practices and races, in all disciplines. This is the denominator, lacking in many studies (or impossible to assess), that provides a base to assess risk. Injury frequencies overall were 1.3 per 1,000 runs: 2.3 for “big air”; 1.9 for half-pipe, 2.1 for snowboard cross; 0.6 for parallel giant slalom; and 0.3 for parallel slalom. Elite boarders had lower injury rates than the national average, suggesting superior skill. Also, the injury pattern was unlike recreational boarding: fewer wrist injuries, but more to the knee, of which one-third were “overuse” injuries.

A report combining six studies appeared in 2007 in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine and demonstrated: “Wrist guards significantly lowered the odds of sustaining a wrist injury” – fractures and sprains.

Wrist guards and helmets seem to reduce injuries – pay your money and take your chances. Dr. Fraser Houston is a retired emergency room physician who worked at area hospitals after moving to Southwest Colorado from New Hampshire in 1990.

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