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The 2018 Winter Olympics games are here and local ski resorts, as they do every four years, are preparing for an uptick in inspired weekend athletes. Unfortunately, that can mean an increase in injuries as well.
“The most common injury that we see in snowboarding is wrist injuries, and a lot of times we’ll see fractured wrists,” says Coordinated Health orthopedic surgeon Jason Rudolph, MD. “It’s super common in the more beginner snowboarders where the first day out, you’re spending 90 percent of your time either on your bottom or falling forward onto your wrists.”
Those beginner snowboarders are in good company. In the Sochi Olympics in 2014, two snowboarders suffered wrist fractures during the games.
Dr. Rudolph explains that there’s a lot of variance between the most minor wrist fractures and the most severe cases.
“In the younger age group, your bones are a little bit more plasticky or rubbery and when you fall you can bend the wrist bone or you can break right through the growth plate,” he says. “Growth plate fractures sound bad to parents but in reality, that’s the most common place to break a bone and the quickest to heal.”
Those types of fractures are given a cast for three or four weeks (six weeks for adults) and then the patient can continue with regular activities. But for adults with more severe fractures, casts only work on breaks where the bones are perfectly lined up — but if the bones move when the break occurs, doctors will need to do surgery.
“The ones that need surgery, the bone still heals at the same time, it’s just that we have to put those bones back in the right place,” says Dr. Rudolph. “They might miss a season, but they usually get back to their activities.”
Missing a season might be a disappointment for the casual boarder or skier, but for an Olympian, in an Olympic year, it’s a catastrophe. That’s the case for U.S. Apine skier Jackie Wiles. Just days before the start of the games, the veteran skier crashed at a World Cup event. She tore her ACL, and broke both her tibia and fibula. The tibia is the shin bone. The fibula is the smaller bone on the outside of the leg that runs parallel to it.
Regarding a tibia fracture, Dr. Rudolph says, “If you’re lucky and everything’s lined up perfectly maybe you get away with a cast for six weeks. The younger you are, the higher your potential to heal it, but if it’s a displaced fracture — those bones aren’t perfect or close to perfect — those are the ones that end up needing surgery.”
The tibia is not an easy bone to fracture because of the amount of force required, but Wiles’ would-have-been teammate Lindsey Vonn missed the Sochi Olympics, also with a broken tibia.
“If your body is going 80 miles an hour forward and your boot is stopping you at zero miles per hour, that’s enough force to break your tibia bone,” says Dr. Rudoph.
Healing time depends on where the bone was broken. The average time is six weeks, but fractures closer to the ankle will heal a bit faster than those in the center of the bone, because the blood supply is better at the ankle.
But, for those watching at home who are afraid to try skiing for fear of a broken leg: novice skiers seldom break their tibia.
“The downhill skiers in the Olympics tighten their bindings as tight as they possibly can be because the last thing they want is their ski to fall off as they’re going down an Olympic run, says Dr. Rudolph. But for the rest of us, ski bindings are set to release the ski from the boot under the type of pressure generated in a fall.
So enjoy the Olympics, and hit the slopes if you’re feeling inspired. Just try not to fall on your wrists, and skiers, make sure your bindings are adjusted properly for your ability level.