Common ski injuries: the knees and back. Here's how to protect them

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When skiing or snowboarding is part of life, sooner or later everyone does their time. Injuries are an unfortunate reality of sliding on snow, whether it’s a minor sprain or a season-ending fracture. But while accidents happen, there are steps to avoid a lot of mountain mishaps. Think of it as preventative maintenance for your body.

partial ACL tear ski injury

A partial ACL tear will ruin your season | Photo regenexx.com


Let’s start with what the most common injuries are, beginning with the joint that seems to receive the most abuse during the winter; the knee. The dreaded acronyms ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament) and MCL (Medial Collateral Ligament) are typical topic of conversation in ski town, there always seems to be someone you know who has torn or at least sprained one or more of these important ligaments.

A sprained MCL is the most common ailment, accounting for 20-25% of all ski injuries mostly affecting beginner and intermediate skiers in snow plough or stem Christie. However advanced skiers can tear the MCL completely by catching an edge which throws the knee suddenly outwards. Preventative measures include pre-season quad conditioning (squats baby!), appropriate release value adjusted in your bindings and beginners avoiding an overly wide snowplough stance.

Alpine racing fall

Not all ski crashes are created equal. This alpine racer walked away unscathed | Photo nih.no

A ruptured ACL is one of the top season-ending injuries for ski instructors. It can be easy to miss at times and is often diagnosed late. The most common cause is the backward twisting fall or “Phantom foot,” a combination of falling with the uphill arm back, the skier being off balance to the rear, the hips dropping below the knees and the uphill ski becoming completely unweighted. Some of the scenarios that cause this include attempting to get up whilst still moving during a fall and attempting to recover from an off-balance position. Some ways to avoid the possibility of an ACL rupture:
1. Keep your knees flexed during a fall, don’t fully straighten your legs
2. When you’re down, stay down
3. Keep arms up and forward, don’t let them drag behind you
4. Take care on jumps to not land in the “back seat,” the force can easily tear the ACL

Knee injury ski powder

Keeping in shape can let you enjoy more days like this | Photo Randy Links

Back injuries are also a common yet unfortunate part of the sport. Spinal fractures can occur during a crash via flexion/hyper-extension (much like whiplash) or via compression (the heels-over-head “scorpion” is a common mechanism for snowboarders). Muscle injuries can occur when attempting heavy lifting (such as helping a friend to their feet) as well as constant jarrring from skiing bumpy terrain like moguls.

The best way to avoid injury is to make sure your body is adequately prepared for the season. That means strengthening core and leg muscles before the season starts. And don’t forget to stretch! So many injuries can be prevented if skiers and snowboarders take the time to keep muscles supple and flexible.

—Vince Shuley

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