ATHENS, Ohio - For some people, winter weather means it’s time to suit up for winter sports such as ice skating, sledding, snow skiing and other activities. For others, winter means long months of navigating often-treacherous sidewalks and roads.
In 2009, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, more than 350,000 people were treated for winter sports-related injuries in doctors’ offices or emergency rooms. Countless others were treated for falls caused by icy surfaces.
Dr. Rachel Rohde, spokeswoman for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, said winter is often the time for accidents.
“We participate in different activities during this season than we do during the rest of the year,” she said in a recent news release. “Skiing, snowboarding and snowmobiling are fun sports but are not without some risks. Seemingly simple activities like carrying luggage or even walking outside to get your mail can be a disaster if there is ice on the ground.”
Jim Schulz, unit manager of the emergency department at O’Bleness Memorial Hospital in Athens, said the number of winter weather-related injuries has risen in recent weeks in the hospital’s emergency room.
“Whenever it snows, it gets slippery, and that affects not just people driving but also people walking. For the people who have balance issues, it gets even more complicated. You can fight gravity with balance, but if you don’t have balance, and it’s slick, you can have a problem,” he said on Monday.
While gravity may be the unavoidable enemy for people with balance problems, it’s what makes snow sledding so much fun. According to Schulz, like any sport, sledding can be dangerous and injuries can result, so it’s important to sled safely.
“Gravity works to the advantage of kids out there who want to enjoy racing down hills. They have a love of gravity so they hike hills to slide down,” he said. “My advice is this: I suggest people view sledding like mountain biking. The potential for head injuries, fractures and all of that can be negated somewhat by taking precautions. You wouldn’t consider racing down hills toward the woods on a mountain bike without a helmet. It’s the same thing with sledding. I’m not sure a bike helmet is the best helmet, but it’s better than nothing.”
Both as a medical professional and a mountain bike enthusiast, Schulz is no stranger to sports-related injuries, and he follows his own advice.
“When I was a kid, I went (sledding or biking) without a helmet. We all did then,” he said. “But I’ve been racing for over 30 years, and I know when I fall off I am going head first so I wear a helmet. I wear a helmet when I ski, too. I love to play, but if you want to play and keep playing, you take the needed safety precautions to protect yourselves. We’ve had multiple sledding accidents this year, and we sent at least one that I know of to Columbus. The minute it snows we get lots of people slipping, falling, crashing.”
He said many people seem to know it’s better to wear protective gear.
“On the ski slopes we see more and more people wearing helmets. We’re seeing more with helmets than without,” he said. “There’s always going to be a group of people, including motorcyclists, who view helmets as restrictive. I view them as protection for what is inevitably going to happen. I like to push the envelope. Every kid going downhill looks for the best possible speed but most can be talked into wearing protective gear. Even elbow and knee pads are important when doing dangerous tricks. They are a good way to protect yourself when learning new tricks.”
Whether on or off icy surfaces, it’s a good idea to wear protective gear. He said skaters and skateboarders often seek treatment for injuries in the emergency room, too.
“A lot of kids … will wear helmets, knee or elbow pads when they are learning a new trick, but then learn the trick and take off the protective gear. We’ve seen that a lot,” he said.
Another important safety tip is to know where you’re sledding.
“In sledding it is really critical that you know your course,” Schulz said. “A couple of times a year we deal with people who don’t realize that the dam at Dow Lake is not a very good place to sled. There’s a big ditch at the bottom, and every year we get someone who has been injured there. Jeff Hill is another place — there are a few metal pipes there and it’s open to cars, so it’s a double whammy. People don’t realize if you are going to slide down a hill it is not a bad idea to take a look when walking up. You need to know where you are going to be going. … Mountain bikers don’t jump off a cliff if they don’t know where they are going to land. … It might look impressive on YouTube, but people need to remember that most people have looked over the site carefully and rehearsed their landing.”
He said the best advice he can give a sledder is to look at the place you’re planning to slide down.
“Look at it. Walk it out before sledding down a hill,” he said. “You have to start at the bottom so look at what you’re going to be sledding over on the way up. It limits the injuries — there’s no guarantees but it can limit the injuries. When you check out where you are going before you do it, you have a better chance of doing it right and then doing it again and doing it better.”
Some people think they will be safe if they follow the tracks of someone else. Not so, Schulz said.
“Just because someone went that way before you, it doesn’t mean they weren’t hauled out by an ambulance,” he said. “Following someone else’s tracks is not a guarantee.”