Caught in the headlines, but accidents while skiing are rare
Despite injuries to Michael Schumacher and Angela Merkel, skiing is an increasingly safe sport, says the Irish Olympic physio
Formula One driver Michael Schumacher in action during a race in the ski resort Madonna di Campiglio, Italy. Photograph: EPA/Benvenuti
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, on crutches since a skiing accident at the end of December. Photograph: EPA/Joerg Carsten
With German Chancellor Angela Merkel laid low with a fractured pelvis after a ski accident in Switzerland, and Michael Schumacher suffering serious head trauma following an off-piste fall in the French Alps, skiing injuries have been very much in the news since the New Year.
The severity of Schumacher’s injury is unusual, but minor knocks and bumps on the slopes are not. Tellingly, most standard travel insurance packages don’t include cover for winter sports because a ski trip is considered more hazardous than a regular sun holiday.
With no domestic ski or snowboarding scene in Ireland, most Irish people are starting out as beginners which can make them more prone to injury. But there are plenty of precautions that can be taken to ensure you come home in the same condition you went out in.
Aidan Woods is head physiotherapist with the Olympic Council of Ireland and has travelled with the Irish team to the Winter Olympics which is under way in the Russian city of Sochi.
In his absence, he expects his physio practice in Dublin’s Pearse Street to be busy dealing with ski injuries. “We get ski injuries fairly regularly. . . they start trickling in around December.
“You nearly know they are coming in because you hear the crutches stumping through the door.”
He stresses that there are fewer accidents than people think, just one injury for every 300 days of participation. That said, he sees clients recovering from fractured legs, wrist injuries and “skier’s thumb” which is caused by falling on an outstretched hand with the ski pole yanking on the thumb.
Knee injuries, to which women are more prone, have become very common. Modern ski boots are higher up the leg to prevent lower leg breakages but have inadvertently pushed pressure towards the knee, making cruciate ligament damage a common ski injury.
One of his clients, Janette Davies, severed her cruciate ligament during a bad fall in 2007. “There wasn’t much snow, it was very bumpy and hard so we probably shouldn’t have been skiing. In the hospital they said it will be six months before you are able to walk. I said ‘You are joking’.” She needed surgery and a full year to recover.
Many people love the idea of a ski holiday but underestimate how physical snow sports can be. Skiing and snowboarding demand a basic level of cardio fitness and balance, so some training in the run-up to a ski holiday is a good idea; particularly exercise that builds strength in the knees and legs like cycling or cross-training at the gym.
Take ski lessons
Woods recommends taking a lesson or two before jetting off. “Try to replicate skiing or snowboarding [on a dry slope] before you go so you know what to expect. Even for someone who has skied all their life, it is worth getting a top-up.”
A couple of ski lessons will teach an absolute beginner the basics like how to stop and how to use a ski pull.
Matt Campbell has been a ski instructor with the Ski Club of Ireland in Kilternan for over 20 years.
The sport has changed since he first took it up over 30 years ago when it was an altogether snobbier, boozier affair. It was also a lot less safe. Ski injuries have halved since the 1970s even though about twice as many people ski nowadays. “It’s important to get across that most people who go away on a ski holiday come back in the same condition they went out in . . . maybe suffering from liver damage,” he jokes.
“You read the headlines about people caught in avalanches and Michael Schumacher but it is not a terribly high-risk sport. If they are skiing up and down the prepared piste in a resort [as opposed to off-piste skiing], most people don’t suffer any kind of injury.”
Equipment advances have made skiing much safer. Modern ski bindings, which anchor boots to the skis, are more finely tuned to release your skis in a fall.
Using badly fitted kits can increase the risk of injury by 800 per cent so if you are tempted to borrow a friend’s gear, have it fitted to you professionally. “If you borrow someone else’s skis don’t assume they are correct,” says Campbell. “The bindings are set quite technically . . . we ask you your height and weight and there is a chart to tell you the correct spring pressure to put on the bindings for you.”
Ski holidays are infamous for the rowdy nightlife and a hangover may leave you less than nimble on the slopes.
In the past, skiers would habitually wash down lunch with a few beers until someone realised that drinking before launching down the side of a mountain with six foot planks strapped to your feet probably isn’t a great idea.
Today there is less drinking until the apres ski, and this is reflected in a decrease in the number of accidents.
As well as avoiding alcohol during the day, it is a good idea to stop before fatigue sets in. Up to 80 per cent of accidents happen in the late afternoon when skiers are tired and their responses are slowing.
“The slopes get very chopped up and icy by the end of the day and everyone is tired so you see people falling and running off the edges.
“An awful lot of small accidents happen when people are tired in the afternoon,” says Campbell.
“It is beautiful out there. When the sun is out you can see for 100 miles. People just don’t want to stop.”