Winter Sports Dangerous for Occasional Participants

Studies show that winter sports can be particularly dangerous for the occasional participants. Injuries and fractures are high among skiers and snowboarders who visit the slopes only a few times a year.

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In personal health today, staying fit and safe with snow sports.

Olympians can make downhill sports look easy, almost effortless. For amateurs, the slopes can be accidents waiting to happen.

NPR's Allison Aubrey reports on tips for preventing injuries and doctor's experiments with a new technology to speed the healing of fractured bones.

ALLISON AUBREY reporting:

Weekend snowboarders Phillip Parr(ph) and Michael Riley(ph) stick together when they're on the mountain. They like to compete and laugh at each other's wipe-outs.

AUBREY: Have you had any falls today?

Mr. MICHAEL RILEY (Snowboarder): Two.

AUBREY: Tell me about them.

Mr. RILEY: Ahh, I was trying to get out of the (unintelligible) and I came up too far and I just kind of went face down. And then my other one, me and a skier got tangled up and I went head forward, and I took his pole with me.

AUBREY: Riley says he walked away from the crash, just as his buddy Phil Parr has from his accidents.

Mr. PHILLIP PARR (Snowboarder): I got a concussion once. I was going down the slope a little too fast, probably, and I landed on the back of my head.

AUBREY: Neither of the 20-year-old wears a helmet or wrist guards, which have been shown to reduce the risk of injuries. In the most recent study, Norwegian researchers found that helmet-wearers were 60 percent less likely to suffer head injuries after a fall.

Phillip Parr says how protective gear could be helpful, but usually he doesn't bother with it.

Mr. PARR: It's just a chance you take, I guess.

AUBREY: Parr and his friend say they taught themselves to snowboard a few years ago, without taking any lessons. Their technique has developed through trial and error and is influenced greatly by a dare devilish approach.

Mr. PARR: Just the thrill of going down as fast as you can.

AUBREY: Speed gets a lot of skiers and snowboarders into trouble.

A study by the Consumer Product Safety Commission found that 144,000 snowboarders ended up in emergency rooms and doctors offices last year. The injuries cost an estimated four billions dollars in medical expenses, work loss, and legal fees.

The numbers don't surprise long-time skier Tip Clifton(ph), who's watched snowboarding take off in recent years. Clifton is sitting on a chairlift, looking down over a bunch of snowboarders who are riding their boards through a deep U-shaped bowl that's been cut into the mountain. Some are making jumps to get from wall to wall.

Mr. TIP CLIFTON (Skier): It is definitely a technique sport. Very much similar in technique to skateboarding, so a lot of the folks that grew up skateboarding jump on a snowboard and it's not that bad a transition.

AUBREY: Young hot-doggers can handle the falls, but for middle-aged guys, Clifton says it's much trickier. His ski buddy has been out of commission all weekend after trying snowboarding for the first time without taking a lesson.

Mr. CLIFTON: So he goes out, when down the bunny slope twice, says, I got this. Goes up to the top of the mountain, goes about twenty yards, wiped out, broke his arm. So he had to cancel his lesson. He's been sitting in the lodge all weekend.

AUBREY: Oh! He's still there now?

Mr. CLIFTON: Yeah, he's still there now. But he's living proof that if you're going to pick up snowboarding, lessons are an excellent idea.

Mr. MIKE SITES(ph) (Snowboard instructor): Looking good. Let's go ahead now, on this. And let's try the next steps.

AUBREY: Snowboard instructor Mike Sites says the most common injury from the sport is a forward fall onto an outstretched hand, which often causes a wrist fracture. It's easy to see how it happens, he says. Boarders feet are bound to the snowboards, making balance tricky.

Mr. SITES: Your weight went to your toes at the end, and as soon as you lean on the toes, that board slid backwards out from under you.

AUBREY: Sites says he keeps his students on gentle terrain as long as he can. As with any sport, it's practice that hones the technique.

Mr. SITES: Once they become comfortable with that sensation of sliding and balancing, then they're much less likely to take a catastrophic fall.

AUBREY: The problem is most people don't take the time for lessons and practice.

Dr. PIETRO TONINO (Chief, Division of Sports Medicine, Loyola University): We're such a time-constrained society nowadays.

AUBREY: Dr. Pietro Tonino is head of Sports Medicine at Loyola University. He says weekend warriors often learn too late the perils of trying to learn a tough sport like snowboarding overnight.

Dr. TONINO: Sometimes they say, you know what? I don't have time to take a lesson, so I'm just going to try it. It looks kind of easy when I see it on TV.

AUBREY: And BOOM. Next thing they know, they've got a fracture.

But medical technology may have something to offer in the way of speeding up recovery. Two years ago when Rebecca Hahn(ph), a doctor from Manhattan, broke her wrist skiing, she was enrolled in a clinical trial of a new medical compound called chrysalin. It's a synthetic version of a human peptide, or protein, found naturally in the body that seems to promote the healing of fractures.

Dr. REBECCA HAHN (New York): They took the external fixater(ph) and all my pins out about three weeks earlier than they normally would have and the healing process was very, very quick.

AUBREY: Hahn is not certain that the chrysalin compound made the difference. The results of the study aren't out yet, and as a blinded participant, it's possible that Hahn received a placebo; she's not sure. Doctors at Manhattan's Hospital for Special Surgery, who are overseeing the study, say if the trial shows chrysalin truly is effective, it could change the way they treat fractures. Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.

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