TAHOE/TRUCKEE - If you stay out of blind spots on the ski slope and only wear one ear bud, you can dramatically reduce your chances of getting seriously injured this winter, said veteran skier Patrick Cohan, who has logged 50 ski seasons, 23 of which were spent working at various Tahoe resorts.
"Bring your brain with you to the slopes," said Cohan, a Grass Valley resident who still does his best to get in at least 50 ski days a year. "Pay attention - the laws of physics still apply."
Statistics show that in 2010, there were 144,000 injuries related to snow skiing and 148,000 related to snowboarding, reported the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission - all of these resulted in a visit to the emergency room, doctor's office or hospital.
While a broad range of injuries can result from a trip to the slopes, the most common ski injury is a tearing of the anterior cruciate ligament or ACL, reports the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. In addition, "Because skiers frequently put their arms out to break a fall, shoulder injuries - such as dislocations and sprains - often occur. Fractures around the shoulder and lower leg are also common. Head injuries also occur in skiing and can be especially serious."
Snowboarders tend to have a whole other set of injuries, said John Seivert, PT, DPT, of Body Logic Physical Therapy in Grass Valley.
"We're seeing more impact, or traumatic injuries with snowboarders - contusions and people landing on their back and hurting their spine, also whiplash, which can sneak up on you a few days later," he said.
However, most commonly, said Seivert, are wrist injuries.
"I heard that within a week at Tahoe Forest Hospital in Truckee, there were a total of 55 wrist fractures," he said. "Fifty-two were from snowboarding and three from falling in the parking lot."
Most injuries occur at the "jumps and boxes" - or the spots designed for cool tricks like jumps and flips - said Mitch Wright, a 20-year-old lift operator on Donner Summit.
"It's like a skateboard park in the snow," he said. "People are bound to get hurt."
When it comes to injury prevention, there are a few basic rules to follow, reports the AAOS.
Invest in the proper equipment, choose runs that match your skill level and take a lesson. Learning how to fall without injury can dramatically reduce one's chances of serious injury.
Although it may seem obvious, those in good physical condition have fewer injuries. Many people get hurt at the end of the day as a result of muscle fatigue. In addition, even a low level of dehydration can influence ability and endurance, so it's important to drink water throughout the day.
"You've got to know the basic safety rules of skiing or boarding," said Cohan. "Slow traffic keeps right, person below you on the slope has the right of way. Don't just pop out from behind trees. If you run into someone who has stopped, you were out of control."
It's the under-30 crowd who are mostly getting hurt on slopes, said Seivert, because they're the risk-takers. Older skiers tend to know their limits.
"I'm seeing the older population skiing longer and longer," he said. "I have a patient with osteoarthritis of the knee, but he's 70 and still doing ski patrol. The key is a well balanced fitness program off the slopes. That has made all the difference."
Strength and coordination programs have become more popular, said Seivert.
While helmets are highly recommended, some studies are now showing that they could create a false sense of security and encourage a skier to take more dangerous risks.
Ultimately, the most important thing you can take with you onto the slopes is your common sense, said Cohan, who has witnessed hundreds of mishaps over the years.
"And don't forget to leave that one ear bud out - you already know the song," said Cohan. "Pay attention - you never know, it could save your life."
- Cory Fisher is a reporter for The Union, the Bonanza's sister newspaper in Nevada City and Crass Valley, Calif.