Avoiding Upper Body Injuries In Winter

by: Robynn Stolte, OTR/L, CHT


Any time of year there is a risk of slips, trips, and falls leading to upper extremity injuries. However, wintertime is notorious to orthopedists and therapists treating the upper extremities. Ice skating, skiing, snowboarding, and other winter sports and activities are common causes of upper extremity injuries. However, there are some easy ways to decrease the risk of injury without interrupting your sport or outdoor activities.

Whether you are new to skiing or a long-time skier, you know that falling can be an inevitable experience. Skier’s thumb, or an injury of the ligaments that connect the bones in your thumb, is a common upper extremity skiing injury. The injury occurs when, during a fall, the ski pole handle places sideways pressure on the thumb causing stress to the ligament. To prevent injury to the ligament during a fall, avoid using the wrist straps of the ski pole or keep them loose to allow you to quickly release the poles. Simple finger grooves in the handle have ergonomic appeal, allowing easy grasp.

Like skiers, snowboarders and ice skaters also share a similar risk of falling. Fall cause a myriad of injuries, including wrist and elbow fractures. Wrists and elbows are most at risk as we attempt to catch ourselves with an outstretched arm.

Here are some tips to avoid falling in any winter sport:

  • Respect pain and fatigue. It is important to know your limits and recognize the signs of fatigue before your body is unable to keep up with you.
  • General conditioning prior to engaging in wintertime sports optimizes your strength and endurance as well as decreases the likelihood of falls.
  • Choose slopes and other challenges that are at a level appropriate to your ability.
  • Use properly maintained equipment adjusted for your body, skill level and terrain. Consider taking classes from a professional instructor who can give you safety advice.
  • Be aware of your terrain and snow conditions, as well as neighboring athletes of all skill levels who may or may not know how to stop.
  • Plan ahead when preparing to exit a ski lift, and communicate your plan to other passengers.

If you feel that you will fall while skiing or snowboarding, attempt to fall toward your uphill side and avoid reaching out or behind you. Use your forearms. Falling safely is a skill you can practice and master, beginning on easier slopes. Wrist guards are particularly important for snowboarders. Boaring gloves with built-in wrist guards are available.

If you experience pain related to a fall during a winter sport, you may need to seek medical attention, especially if you experience swelling, deformity, and even symptoms of shock.

For the wintertime weekend warriors closer to home, don’t forget to be aware of safety risks that lie just outside your front door. In northwest snow conditions, it may be ideal to stay at home indoors until roads and sidewalks are cleared. However, if you do venture out and walk on the snow and ice, follow these safety tips:

  • Plan ahead for outdoor outings, allowing more time to accomplish your trip.
  • Wear footwear with sufficient traction for your terrain. There are simple elastic treads on the market that can be added to your shoes for additional traction.