It’s a rare skier who hasn’t tweaked a knee, and a rare snowboarder whose wrist hasn’t felt the impact of a bad fall. But according to a decade’s worth of data, injury rates on Canadian slopes have actually declined. Some of that decrease is likely linked to improvements in equipment, terrain park design and the increased use of helmets, but data collected by ski patrol units allows for a clearer picture of how skiers and snowboarders get injured. Combined with the introduction of chips embedded in lift tickets, which provide the demographics and habits of skiers, we’re better informed not just on the risks of snow sports, but who’s more likely to get injured.
Data about injuries is largely affected by environmental conditions, safety regulations and demographics, which vary not just by geographical region but by ski hill, so injury statistics gathered from Canadian ski hills may vary considerably from those in Europe or the United States. The Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport published the results of a study into injury trends in alpine skiing and snowboarding at western Canadian ski resorts over 10 seasons, from 2008-09 to 2017-18. It’s worth sharing the findings, especially since the pandemic is inspiring more novices and lapsed skiers to head to the hills.
Two and a half million Canadians hit the slopes annually at ski centres across the country, with resorts in Alberta and British Columbia accounting for about half of all skier visits. The data used in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport article was collected by teams of ski patrollers and analyzed by two researchers (one from Canada and one from Australia), with an injury classified as any on-hill incident that required assistance from a member of a ski patrol.
Further enhancing the data, the injured body part was identified, as was the way the injury occurred and the individual’s self-reported level of skiing/snowboarding ability. Information gathered from the lift ticket, where the injury occurred, the kind of ticket the individual purchased and personal data (age and gender) was also recorded.
The database included 113,560 on-snow injury reports, 49.3 per cent of which were incurred by skiers and 50.7 per cent by snowboarders. Male snowboarders accounted for the greatest number of injuries (about one-third), despite more women taking up snow sports in the last decade. For both men and women, 18- to 25-year-old snowboarders was the cohort most likely to be injured. Women sustained 42 per cent of all snow-sport injuries (skiing and snowboarding combined).
Falls were the most likely cause of injury (79.6 per cent), followed by collisions or near collisions (10.7 per cent). The leg felt the brunt of injuries by skiers (knees 30.7 per cent, lower leg 8.4 per cent and ankle 6.4 per cent), while the arm sustained the bulk of snowboarders’ injuries (wrists 20.8 per cent, shoulder 13.1 per cent, clavicle 4.8 per cent).
As for where on the hills most injuries happened, 47 per cent occurred on green runs (the easiest runs), where 73 per cent of novice skiers, 37 per cent of intermediate skiers, 23 per cent of advanced skiers and 18 per cent of expert skiers were hurt. Forty per cent of injuries occurred on blue runs (more difficult), with 24 per cent of novices, 44 per cent of intermediate skiers, 40 per cent of advanced skiers and 33 per cent of expert skiers being injured on those runs. Only 13 per cent of injuries occurred on black and double black runs (the most difficult and extreme terrain).
The researchers suggested that the high number of injuries on easy runs likely reflects the fact that green runs are often the main corridors to lifts and the base of the hill, so they see a lot more traffic than other runs. They also noted that most of the injuries on green runs were minor.
Injury rates at terrain parks for snowboarders saw a steady decrease, dropping from an all-time high of 12.8 per cent of all snow-sport injuries in 2010-11 to 8.7 per cent in 2017-18.
“It is not clear whether the decline in terrain park injuries reflects changing participation patterns or improved injury prevention strategies as well as the improved safety of built features,” said the researchers.
Also worth noting is that day-ticket holders represented 51.5 per cent of on-hill injuries. Season-ticket holders were about half as likely (27.2 per cent) to get injured.
“The dominance of day-ticket holders, and their lack of experience on the run where they are injured, may indicate that more effective resort-specific information, communication and safety education could benefit infrequent and new visitors to the resort,” said the researchers.
The bottom line for all snow-sport lovers, especially those who are returning to the slopes in greater numbers this year, is that caution is needed, at least initially. A lack of familiarity with the hill or terrain park, combined with busy runs — even if they’re not challenging — raises the risk of injury.
Spending a day on the hills is a great way to get some fresh air and exercise. Just make sure you take the time to become familiar with the ski centre and its runs before letting loose on the slopes.
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