Keeping your child safe from winter injuries

By John Cahoy, MD

It is the season for skiing, skating, snowboarding and sledding. Despite how active kids are outdoors, serious injuries are relatively rare, says John Cahoy, MD, PhD, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Emerson Hospital. He offers a few suggestions for keeping kids safe while they are having fun.

Q. What kinds of injuries do you typically treat in kids during the winter?

A. The most common injuries I treat are to the upper body — often after a fall when someone injures their forearm or wrist, or fractures their clavicle [collarbone]. Concussions are also common after a fall, so I look for signs of head trauma. Other examples of upper body injuries are shoulder injuries that can result if kids are too strongly "checked" while playing hockey. However, a child doesn't need to be involved in a sport to be injured. Similar to adults, kids can simply slip on the ice. Parents need to be aware of conditions outside. If the weather report mentions black ice, they should warn their kids to go slow.

What are the most serious injuries you treat?

In general, the worst injuries I see are due to snowboarding and skiing, and they tend to occur in older kids, because they move with greater speed. The result could be a ligament tear around the knee, such as an ACL or MCL injury, or injury to the long bones of the leg — the femur and tibia. Keep in mind that it is not uncommon for childhood accidents to occur when someone bigger is involved. For example, if a larger kid or an adult is on the sled with a child, the momentum will be much greater. You can imagine how a child might be hurt if their leg is dangling and hits something.

Do you have advice on what to do if a child suffers an accident while skiing or snowboarding?

Most skiing or snowboarding areas have ski patrol staff who can assist you if someone has an accident. And there usually is a medical unit with x-ray capabilities. If there is an injury, the body part in question — wrist, arm, ankle or leg — will be immobilized, and often you can safely head home for treatment. However, be sure the child's pain is well controlled, and their symptoms are not getting worse. Also, get a copy of the x-ray, because you will need it when you see your pediatrician or local orthopedic surgeon.

Should children wear helmets during winter activities?

Today, the safety standard is for kids to wear helmets when they ski or snowboard, and when they play hockey. Parents may not have worn helmets when they were young, but they should be prepared to have a helmet for their child. Helmets, which can be purchased or rented, can prevent a concussion or other head injury.

Should kids take lessons before becoming involved in winter activities?

There certainly is value in a child having professional guidance when beginning winter activities, but I also support letting children play, learn and experiment on their own. If a child wants to ski, they should start on bunny hills and spend some time there before progressing to steeper slopes. Regardless of the activity, children will fall down, but they usually don't hurt themselves. However, if your child was skating and wakes up the next day with a painful wrist, you should call your pediatrician. They may have a hairline fracture, which is easy to treat and heals quickly. Before long, your child will be skating again and, over time, skating with greater confidence and less risk of injury.

For more information, please contact Dr. Cahoy at Orthopedic Affiliates at 978-369-5391.