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McLaughlin’s Top Tips for Smart, Safe Snow Sports

Winter is here, and with it the arrival of that trio of exhilarating, exciting and sometimes dangerous sports: skiing, sledding and snowboarding. So whether you’re waiting for the snow to fall in the Princeton area, or heading to a ski resort during winter break, it’s important for children and adults to remember to play it safe while playing snow sports.

Remember, there is nothing benign about the combination of snow and speed. While we may consider skiing and snowboarding moderate risk activities and sledding a child’s pastime, they can be equally dangerous. The most recent statistics, from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, indicate that in 2008/2009 there were 16, 948 head injuries treated in emergency rooms due to accidents involving sledding, skiing, snowboarding and snowmobiling. The journal Pediatrics has found there are 20,000 sledding accidents a year involving children – and these are just the kids taken to the ER.

Head injuries can be life-ending, or life-changing. Natasha Richardson, Michael Kennedy and Sonny Bono all died in skiing-related accidents, as have many accomplished athletes. Earlier in January, six Russian tourists were killed in the Italian Alps when their snowmobile-pulled sled overturned.
There’s no need to forgo the fun but it is imperative for parents and children to understand the dangers that come with snow sports. Just following a few simple guidelines can make them much safer.

1. Wear a helmet. You must wear a helmet when skiing, snowboarding or sledding. They are required for all other dangerous activities that potentially may cause a head injury, such as football or soccer. We must think about snow sports the same way. While brain injuries can occur when wearing a helmet, it is clear that concussions and head injuries are reduced when they are worn. The National Ski Area Association’s annual demographic studies indicate a 140% increase in helmet usage since 2002-2003. Still, only 61% of skiers and snowboarders wear helmets. But the good news is that more kids are wearing them, and are having fewer serious head injuries. Here’s a site, Lids on Kids, that offers guidance on selecting a well-fitting helmet.

2. Do not go off a jump. Jumps are dangerous, particularly sledding jumps. Every winter we see at least two or three patients in the emergency room with spinal fractures related to sled jumping. Why? Most people who are sledding are either on their stomachs leaning forward and their head gets jammed into their body causing a cervical fracture. If they are sitting, they can land on a hard surface without benefit of shock absorbers, damaging a low back vertebra. Just imagine what happens when the kinetic energy caused by the impact of a body with the ground is transferred to the blocks of bone and the spine called vertebral bodies. Bodies can only withstand certain loads and if those loads are too great, the bone will fracture. When a fracture like this occurs, the bones can explode into the spinal canal, damaging the spinal cord. This is an extremely common problem and injuries of sledding jumps are one of the number one spine injuries that occur during the wintertime.

3. Don’t go between trees or in woods. Sledding or skiing/snowboarding through the woods is extremely dangerous. Trees and rocks are dangerous immovable obstacles that are usually not perceived by children as objects of blunt force. When sledding down a hill, a sled can reach a speed as high as 20 miles per hour. If the sled goes out of control, the passenger on the sled can strike the tree at a high velocity. This can also happen with rocks, which may not even be visible as the child is sledding down the hill. It is important to emphasize to your children that sledding into a tree is equivalent of getting hit in the head with a baseball bat at full speed — only in reverse.

So have fun this winter, but follow these guidelines. Finally, there is some bonus advice
to ensure a safe day in the snow: Start slow and build to a harder run. Quit one run early. And never, ever, mix alcohol with these sports.

Here’s to a happy, healthy winter!

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