Winter Sports Tips for Spine Health 

Winter Sports Tips for Spine Health
By: Lincoln Likness, DO

With the 2010 Winter Olympics well underway in Vancouver, children and adults worldwide are watching the exciting festivities and cheering their country to victory. For some, however, the Olympic spirit will ignite a passion within to take up a winter sport of their own.  Getting active outside during winter is an excellent way to exercise and help those cold months pass by faster. While year round exercise is recommended for overall spine health, winter sporting activities come with some degree of injury risk.

Whether your goal is to conquer a new hobby or achieve Olympic gold, here are some tips to ensure your spine health and keep the winter sporting season painless and enjoyable:

Risk of Injury:  Always keep your head up and be aware of your surroundings while participating in sporting activities. Popular winter sports such as downhill skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, ice hockey and speed skating involve high speeds, obstacles, and a high risk of injury.  Most severe spine-related injuries in high speed sports occur during falls or collisions affecting the head, neck and back.

For instance, many spine-related ice hockey injuries occur when an opponent checks a player from behind and directly into the boards.  Figure skating can also pose a moderately high risk if you incorporate jumping or skate at a busy rink.  Lower risk winter sports include cross country skiing, snowshoeing, or curling.

Training:  Focus your off-season and in-season preparation on your core – your spine, abdominals, gluteals, and upper leg muscles.  A strong and balanced core supports optimal body mechanics, balance, and stability. Improved conditioning and cardiovascular shape enhances endurance and takes some of the stress off your spine.

Preparation:  Cross-training and sport-specific training are highly recommended when taking on any new sporting challenge. Many facilities provide coaching, typically for a nominal fee.  Proper training will allow you to better identify appropriate equipment and protective gear, acclimate to your environment, and anticipate weather changes that may put you at higher risk of injury. Make sure your equipment, such as ski or snowboard bindings, is in good repair and has had a recent inspection or tune up.

Pain Management:  Always remember to perform warm up and cool down exercises before any sporting activity. If you have a history of sporting activities aggravating a pre-existing spine condition, take a pre-activity over-the-counter pain reliever or anti-inflammatory, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Gentle stretching, rest, heating pads or ice packs will usually help manage minor pain.

Injury: If you sustain a fall, high velocity injury, or experience severe pain or motor-sensory deficits, you should be evaluated by a spine physician promptly.

When beginning any new winter sport, it’s very important that you participate at your own pace, pay attention to any alerts and environmental warnings that may be posted, and watch out for other people and hazards. These tips should keep you safe, active and participating in the sport you love.