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Traumatic ski injuries up modestly in Aspen in December, January

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times

The number of traumatic injuries suffered by skiers and snowboarders on the Aspen slopes is up only modestly this season even though the snowpack is considerably less forgiving than last winter.

The trauma team at Aspen Valley Hospital handled 127 cases in December and January where the injuries were severe enough to admit the person to the hospital for treatment or send the person to another facility for emergency care, according to the statistics compiled by trauma team manager Melanie Crandall.

That is up from 110 trauma cases in December and January last season. That is an increase of 17 cases or 15 percent.

The number of injuries was up by 9 in December 2014 over 2013 and up 8 in January 2015 over January 2014.

Dr. Joe Livengood, the trauma surgeon at Aspen Valley Hospital, said there is nothing to suggest that skiers and riders have a significantly tougher time on the slopes when the snowpack is below average, like this winter, compared to a powder-packed winter like last season.

“The numbers don’t back it up. There’s a little bit of a trend up this year but it’s in the single digits, “ Livengood said, referring to the number of cases on a month-by-month basis.

The trauma cases don’t include accidents where a skier or rider comes to the emergency room for treatment, then is sent home. That includes a lot of twisted or blown knees. The trauma cases are the worst of the accidents.

“These are the ones serious enough that we see them,” Crandall said.

Livengood added, “It’s not a bump or a bruise. It can be a season–ending injury.” Or it can be worse than a season-ending injury, in some cases.

The number of emergency room visits to AVH dropped in December and January this season, indicating that ski-related injuries that didn’t involve trauma were down from last season. The emergency room saw 784 patients in December and January 2013-14, according to AVH. Many of those visits were for ski-related injuries. That fell to 717 visits for those two months this winter. That’s a decrease of 67 patients or 8.5 percent.

In trauma events, the most noticeable differences season over season were rib injuries and torso injuries, such as damaged spleens and livers.

There were 11 cases of broken ribs the first full months of this season compared to only four last season. Livengood said he treats a lot of rib fractures and head injuries from skiers landing hard in the snow and crashing into one another. Often, when it’s skier versus skier, the crash results when people in the same group ski too closely to one another, he said. The person in the front stops unexpectedly and gets hit by a trailing skier.

There were six torso injuries this season compared to two last season over the same period.

Most cases seen by the AVH trauma team are broken bones in legs and arms. The team treated 81 breaks in December and January this season compared to 74 for the same months last season.

Closed head injuries were similar over the two seasons with 14 in 2014-15 and 12 the prior season. Livengood and Crandall said they have no doubt that ski helmets help prevent head injuries or lessen their severity. (See related story.)

There were 8 spine injuries this season compared to six last season during December and January, and there were three pelvic injuries this season and five last season.

AVH transferred 12 patients to other facilities in December and January, according to their records. There were nine transfers in December and January the prior season. Transfers often involve brain or spine injuries.

Livengood said there are some similarities in ski-related injuries to what trauma units see in car crashes. He said he recently checked his speed while skiing on the slopes and found he was going 45 mph without really pressing it. Many skiers and riders are traveling at speeds from 20 to 50 mph when they take a hard fall or collide with another skier or an object.

“When you’re the one moving, it’s hard to gauge how much force you have,” he said. The accidents regularly happen even when recklessness isn’t a factor, Livengood said. Even slow-speed falls can result in broken bones sometimes, he noted.

The number of skiers and riders treated seems to track pretty well with the percentages on the slopes, Livengood said. “I don’t think snowboarders are any more reckless than skiers,” he said.

Crandall said they tend to treat a lot of tibia-fibula fractures among skiers and a lot of broken wrists and arms among riders who attempted to break their fall.

Extreme sports participants don’t account for a disproportionate number of injuries. AVH Chief Executive Officer Dan Bonk noted during Monday’s board of directors meeting that the hospital was prepared for the worst during the Winter X Games in January, but didn’t see a spike in injuries.

“We’ve seen some park injuries for sure, but by far the worst is skier versus skier,” Livengood said.

scondon@aspentimes.com


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