Skiing, Snowboarding and the Shoulder

snowboarding and the shoulderAs excitement builds for the start of the Winter Olympics which commences today, the athletes will be entering their very final training and prep stages for one of the most important sporting events in their career.

The UK has reportedly doubled its investment in the Winter Olympics due to be held in South Korea, from £13.5m in 2014, to a staggering £27.9m for this year’s games. As the event continues to grow in importance to the UK, sports such as skiing, and snowboarding are also seeing a spike in popularity. While it is fantastic to see more people taking up these active sports, it is also important to be aware the risks involved; particularly those to the shoulder.

Upper extremity injury rate has risen while lower extremity injuries decline

Over the years, the rate of lower extremity injuries occurring in Alpine sports has declined, while upper extremity injuries have increased. It’s estimated that upper extremity injuries account for 20 to 35 per cent of Alpine skiing injuries, and a staggering 50 per cent of snowboarding injuries.

The rate of shoulder specific Alpine sports injuries are thought to account for 22 to 41 per cent of upper extremity injuries in skiing and 20 to 34 per cent of injuries in snowboarding. As these sports become more popular, it’s likely we’ll see an increase in shoulder-related injuries.

Understanding the most common shoulder injuries

The shoulder injuries which occur in Alpine sports, tend to be caused by falls. However, aerial manoeuvres carried out in snowboarding, and pole planting in skiing can also lead to injury. Here, we’ll look at the most common shoulder injuries experienced by athletes and budding winter sport enthusiasts.

Glenohumeral instability – shoulder instability is quite a common injury and it occurs when the soft tissue cannot keep the humeral head connected to the glenoid fossa. This, in turn, causes it to partially or fully dislocate; compromising the function of the shoulder.

In skiing and snowboarding, a fall could cause trauma to the area, causing additional laxity within the soft tissue.

Rotator cuff strain – another common injury, rotator cuff strains or tears, are by far the most common shoulder injury that patients present with. Although most common in overhead sports such as tennis, those partaking in Alpine sports are also at risk.

Any of the four tendons of the rotator cuff can be torn, with injuries ranging from mild to severe. Tears can also occur due to overuse of the tendons, so athletes who train too frequently are also at risk.

Clavicle fractures – the falls suffered by skiers and snowboarders, pose a significant risk of clavicle fractures or a broken collarbone. It is one of the major bones in the shoulder and is prone to breakage if it is placed under significant pressure. This type of injury is especially painful and typically requires a sling to be worn unless it is an unusually complex fracture, when surgery may be required.

These are just three of the most common shoulder injuries experienced by skiers and snowboarders. Treatment will depend upon the type and severity of the injury.

Can ski and snowboard related shoulder injuries be prevented?

Due to the nature of winter sports and the higher risk of falls, it isn’t always possible to prevent injury. However, with adequate training, it is possible to reduce the risk.

One thing you can do is build up your cardiovascular endurance. This will help to reduce the strain placed upon the body during skiing or snowboarding. Activities such as cycling, running and swimming are all great cardiovascular exercise.

Focusing on exercises which also strengthen the shoulders is also important. If you’re new to Alpine sports, taking lessons can also reduce your risk of injury. However, even pro athletes are at risk of injuring the shoulder.

Even following the advice above cannot guarantee you won’t injure your shoulder. However, the sooner you seek treatment, the better. If left untreated, shoulder injuries can become much worse and take longer to fix. Those experiencing significant shoulder pain after a sojourn on the slopes should, therefore, seek a diagnosis as quickly as possible.