Hand Care and Safety in Winter Sports


Chicago, IL- February 23, 2015 – For many, winter is a time to engage in winter sports: skiing, snowboarding, ice skating, ice hockey, speed skating, snow tubing and ice climbing, just to name a few. Injuries to the hand, arm and wrist during these sports are common, and they are usually the result of falling on an outstretched hand or arm. 

With skiing and snowboarding, injuries are more common at the beginning of the season, when there is not enough natural snow on the ground to help cushion a fall.  Dr. Randall W. Viola from The Steadman Clinic in Vail, Colorado advises that, “Although we all instinctively extend our hands when we fall, it is best to bring one’s arms in close to the body and roll through the fall rather than land on one's outstretched hand. By dissipating your energy slowly by rolling down the hill, you are less likely to sustain a serious injury.” 

Common injuries experienced by skiers and snowboarders include “skier’s thumb” and wrist injuries.

Skier’s Thumb

  • Cause: Skier’s thumb occurs when the ski pole does not release from the hand during a fall. The pole places a bending stress on the thumb, which can cause a thumb ligament to tear.   
  • Treatment: If you fall while skiing and your inner thumb hurts, a hand surgeon can determine whether the pain is caused by a partial or complete ligament tear. A partial tear is usually treated with a cast or splint, whereas a complete tear is treated with surgery to repair the ligament. Occasional skiers should avoid skiing until the ligament heals, which could take 6-8 weeks. Professional skiers should talk with their hand surgeon about options that will allow them to return to the mountain sooner.
  • Prevention: Release your ski poles when you fall. Using ski poles without platforms or saber handles can also decrease your chance of injury. 

Wrist Injuries 

  • Cause: Wrist injuries occur when the hands reach out to prevent a fall. The immediate pressure placed on the wrist upon impact can cause injury to the wrist’s bones and ligaments. Dr. Adam B. Shafritz and his colleagues from the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington, Vermont have found that snowboarders are 17 times more likely to sustain a wrist fracture than skiers. There are many reasons for this, but they surmise that “because both feet are rigidly fixed to the snowboard, when falling backward, snowboarders will reflexively put out their hands to break the fall to prevent hitting their head on the ground.”
  • Treatment: If you fall during any winter sport and experience wrist pain, see your doctor. Your doctor will examine your wrist and get more studies, including x-rays and/or possibly an MRI or CT scan. Treatment may consist of a splint, cast or surgery. Occasional snowboarders should sit out until the wrist heals, which could take anywhere from 4-12 weeks depending on the extent of the injury. Professional athletes should talk to their hand surgeon about options that will allow them to return to the mountain sooner.
  • Prevention: Snowboarders can use wrist guards or gloves that have guards built into them. Wrist guards can decrease the chance of suffering a wrist injury, especially in beginners. 

Getting hurt does not necessarily mean your winter sport season is over. The winter sport season can last 4 months or longer, so—depending on the time of injury—it may be possible to return to the slopes before the end of the season. 

Overall winter sport safety tips from our doctors include:

  1. If you feel tired, take a break or stop. Injuries commonly occur just before lunch and right before the lifts close. 
  2. Wear protective gear. Everyone should wear helmets, and snowboarders benefit from wrist guards or gloves with wrist guards built into them. For competitive snowboarders, Dr. Karen D. Heiden of Heiden Davidson Orthopedics in Park City, Utah encourages “the use of hip pads and body armor that pads the torso, back and upper extremities. The body armor is obtained from the motocross arena/websites. This protection is especially recommended for halfpipe and slopestyle and potentially could be applied to freestyle skiers.”
  3. Remember that skis and snowboards have sharp edges – avoid those edges if you fall.
  4. Dress appropriately and monitor yourself for frostbite (in early stages of frostbite, the fingers become white, numb, and swollen). Heed warnings posted by the mountain on very cold days.
  5. Have a trained professional test, set, and adjust your equipment and bindings, and have them tested yearly – do not do this yourself at home.
  6. Watch out for other skiers and snowboarders when you’re on the mountain, especially during busy days. Remember that the person below you has the right of way.
  7. Stay within your own abilities, e.g., avoid the terrain park if you do not have sufficient experience. If you are a competitor, avoid unnecessary risks just prior to an upcoming event.

For More Information 
To identify a local hand surgeon spokesperson in your market, please call Tara Spiess, ASSH, at 312-880-1900. Please also visit http://www.handcare.org for more information on hand safety.

About Hand Surgeons
Hand surgeons have received specialized additional training in the treatment of hand problems in addition to their board certified specialty training in orthopedic surgery, plastic surgery or general surgery.  To become members of the American Society for Surgery of the Hand, hand surgeons must have completed a full year of such additional training and must pass a rigorous certifying examination.

Many hand surgeons also have expertise with problems of the elbow, arm, and shoulder.  Some hand surgeons treat only children, some treat only adults, and some treat both.  Common problems treated include carpal tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow, wrist pain, sports injuries of the hand and wrist, fractures of the hand, wrist, and forearm, and trigger fingers. Other problems treated by hand surgeons include arthritis, nerve and tendon injuries and congenital limb differences (birth defects).

Not all problems treated by a hand surgeon require surgery.  Hand surgeons often recommend non-surgical treatments, such as medication, splints, therapy and injections.  

About the ASSH
The mission of the American Society for Surgery of the Hand is to advance the science and practice of hand and upper extremity surgery through education, research and advocacy on behalf of patients and practitioners. 

Tara Spiess
822 W. Washington Blvd., Chicago, IL
Ph: 312.880.1900