As anyone who’s ever had their feet swept out from under them on an ice rink can attest, winter sports are not all tinsel and mistletoe. One moment you could be carving up the ski slope like a phantom, and the next you could be facedown in a patch of snow with your skis criss-crossed and ski poles stuck twenty feet up the mountain.

Sure, over the past several decades, the per capita number of ski and snowboard-related injuries have gone down thanks in large part due to better equipment and safety education, but the risks are still real, and the injuries are just as painful as ever. While the injuries and pain may not have changed, their medical treatments have. This article will focus on some of the most common injuries to the upper-extremities (arms, shoulder, elbow, etc.) that can occur as a result of partaking in winter sports, how they’re caused, treated, and ultimately, mended through operations like total shoulder replacement surgery or the like.

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Common Upper-Extremity Injuries

According to a study at Stanford University, “shoulder injuries account for 4 to 11% of all alpine skiing injuries… During snowboarding, shoulder injuries account for 8 to 16% of all injuries.” Shoulders can often catch the brunt of a fall when a skier or snowboarder takes a tumble down the slope, which can cause a fracture to bones that gather at the shoulder (like the humerus and clavicle), or cause non-trivial damage to the surrounding ligaments and tendons in the form of tears, dislocation, partial dislocation (or “subluxations”), and ruptures. Other members of the upper-extremities that gets its fair share of abuse come ski season is the elbow or an injury that results in frozen shoulder surgery.

 

Treatment & Recovery

If you happen to suffer a fracture in your shoulder, the treatment usually involves the use of a “collar-and-cuff” sling that dangles down from your neck and connects at your wrist for up to six weeks. Once removed, continued physical therapy may be required, as it can take upwards of 12 months to fully heal. In some cases, orthopedic surgery may be required in the form of a simple fix or what is called open reduction internal fixation (ORIF), which anatomically reduces the fracture and holds the bone in place via a plate and screws.

On the other hand (or shoulder), if your winter sport accident causes a tear in your rotator cuff, there are a number of non-operative treatments available before resorting to surgery. These include the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen, physical therapy, and a regimen of cortisone shots. According to orthopedic specialists, if surgery is required, the post-surgery prognosis can vary. When working with Seattle sports medicine orthopedic specialist, Dr. Daniel Schwartz, patients usually achieve 80% of normal range of motion by 3 months, and 90-95% by 4-6 months.

So next time you hit the slopes or the skating rink, take the extra couple minutes to refresh your memory on safety precautions and ensure your equipment is in working order so that you don’t end up strapped to a snowmobile or on crutches sipping hot cocoa at the lodge.