Safety on the Slopes

Keeping your gear and body in tune are keys to winter recreation safety

Orthopedic and sports medicine specialist John Durkan, M.D., has vast experience in sports medicine, including his time as the assistant team physician for the U.S. Snowboarding team (and working at the Nagano Olympics). He has seen it all; and as we enter into another ski season, he urges you to practice caution and watch your head.

Seven safety tips for the slopes

n Wear a helmet: Most people do. You should, too. Helmets won’t prevent every accident, but they will reduce the risk of injury. Besides that, they’re comfortable and they keep you warm. Parents who wear helmets set a good example for the next generation of skiers.

n Stay in shape: Strength, flexibility and stamina not only make you a better skier, they reduce your likelihood of injury. Adopt a program that includes strength training, stretching and aerobic conditioning — especially before and during the ski season.

n Tune up your equipment: Avoid injuries caused by old or faulty equipment. Before your first trip down the mountain each year, make sure everything is in proper working condition. Check to make sure that your boots still fit snugly and that your bindings work properly.

n Get some training before you get tricky: A lot of severe injuries occur at high velocity or when skiers and snowboarders attempt jumps beyond their skill level. Be aware of your limits, and don’t overdo it. If you want to do jumps, first get some instruction on how to do them safely and correctly and how to land them properly.

n Scout out the terrain: The more extreme your style, the more important it is to be extremely familiar with the terrain. If you go off an unexpectedly large jump or you misjudge a landing, you could risk a serious injury, regardless of your helmet’s protection. Take it easy on your first run or your first trip through new terrain. Give yourself time to get the feel of the landscape and to scout out the jumps. Once you feel comfortable with the terrain, then you can start getting a little more aggressive.

n Turn down the volume: As if skiing and snowboarding couldn’t get more fun, now we can listen to music while we swoosh down the slopes. Unfortunately, people who do are more likely to get injured, probably because the music distracts their attention from where it needs to be. If you enjoy music with your mountain experience, proceed with caution: keep the volume low or use only one ear bud; make sure you’re still aware of what’s going on in your surroundings; and never attempt high-risk tricks and runs while you’re distracted.

n Know when to call it quits: Most injuries occur later in the day, when people are tired and their muscles start getting fatigued. When your energy begins to flag, listen to your body. Instead of trying to crank out a few more runs, give it a rest and call it a day.

A heads-up on head injuries

Head injuries are not something you want to take chances with. If you do hit your head, even if you feel OK, have a friend stay close by for a while to watch for signs of trouble. A head injury that is followed by any of the following should be evaluated immediately:

n Disorientation or confusion

n Dizziness, balance problems or trouble walking

n Headache that is severe or not getting better

n Vomiting

n Loss of consciousness

If needed, help is available on the mountain. Don’t tough it out — check it out. And absolutely do not get back on the slopes until you are back to normal. When athletes return to play too soon after a minor head injury and then have a second head injury, the second one may be much worse. This is why football players sit out after having a concussion until all their symptoms are completely gone. Apply the same principle to skiing and snowboarding.

If you’re an aggressive skier who has had several head injuries over the years, it may be wise to ease up a bit. Recent studies show that head injuries may have a cumulative effect on the brain. The more head injuries a person suffers, even if they’re minor, the more potential there is for long-term problems such as memory loss, depression, and cognitive decline.

The adrenaline rush you feel on the slopes today might be exhilarating, but it might not be worth the consequences down the road. Play it safe: avoid the big jumps, take the runs a little slower and tone things down a notch. You want to enjoy the slopes for your entire lifetime.

— Christina Vander Werf, Providence Hood River Memorial Hospital


Dr. Durkan practices in Hood River at Providence Medical Group-Hood River Orthopedic Surgery and Sports Medicine Clinic.

Providence Hood River Memorial Hospital is part of Providence Health & Services, the state’s leading health system and largest private employer. Providence Hood River Memorial Hospital is a full-service, critical-access hospital with a 24-hour emergency department. Providence offers a wide range of health care services in the communities of the Columbia River Gorge through its clinics, care centers and senior living facilities. Visit

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