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Snowboarders suffer upper body injuries twice as much as skiers, with the top two body parts at risk for injury in a snowboarding accident being the wrist and shoulder.
With both feet locked into position on the board, it’s human instinct to try to catch yourself with your arms when you fall. A hard-enough landing can easily break a wrist, but it can also affect the shoulder.
“If you’re in an unusual position where there’s a torqueing-type force on the arm and shoulder, it will cause the ball to pop right out of the joint,” says Coordinated Health Orthopedic Surgeon Randy Jaeger, MD. Falling on the shoulder can cause it to dislocate as well.
Initial treatment is usually a simple procedure, but – especially for a first-time dislocation – not very pleasant. “A lot of these people when they dislocate they actually have to be brought to an emergency room and they have to be sedated and the arm has to be popped back in to the joint,” explains Dr. Jaeger. On the flip side, he says, “Some of the folks, if they’ve had previous dislocations in the past and the shoulder comes out very easily, sometimes they can almost pop it back in on their own.”
Many times, repeated injuries mean the patient has done more than just dislocated the joint. “When the ball comes out of the cup, it will often times tear a structure called the labrum,” says Dr. Jaeger.
The labrum is a cup-shaped rim of cartilage between the ball and socket of the shoulder joint.
A torn labrum “can make the shoulder much more susceptible to what we call instability, meaning where it just comes out, and you don’t even have to necessarily have an injury for it to come out,” says Dr. Jaeger.
A dislocation without any other damage just means a few weeks in a sling. But a tear can require surgery.
It’s an arthroscopic procedure in which the labrum is tethered to the bone with suture material and a type of plastic screw called a suture anchor. The patient is in a sling for six weeks while scar tissue binds the labrum back to the bone. After the patient is out of the sling, he or she will spend another four to six weeks in physical therapy.
A snowboarder can get back on the mountain shortly thereafter, but for activities that require more force – for example, if that snowboarder is the pitcher for his baseball team – doctors will be more cautious.
“If it’s the dominant arm, meaning if it’s their right shoulder and they’re right handed, we have to bring those patients along obviously a little bit slower,” says Dr. Jaeger.
In that case, it would be five to six months before they’d be back on the mound. (Which is exactly why high school and professional athletes are often discouraged or prohibited from participating in some winter sports!)
While falls are inevitable in snowboarding, to protect yourself from injury, try to keep your arms pulled in, and your head and shoulders tucked when you fall. That will distribute the force over a larger area of the body, rather than concentrated in one limb or joint.