By Leon S. Benson, MD Special to Pioneer Press

As seen in the Evanston Review, January 26, 2015

Planning a family ski trip to Wisconsin this winter? Or hoping to surprise your spouse with a romantic skate around the new Maggie Daley ice ribbon downtown? Are the kids clamoring for a trip to Flick or James parks to sled for an afternoon?

Winter excursions like these are a tried-and-true tradition for many North Shore residents. Not only do they allow you to stay active during the winter months, but also they create long-lasting memories and strengthen bonds among family and friends. Unfortunately, participation in winter sports doesn’t always end on a high note. In any given year, more than 300,000 people are treated for winter sports-related injuries, including sprains, strains, dislocations, fractures, tears and more.

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, in 2012 more than 40,000 injuries were caused by sledding; nearly 98,000 injuries came as a result of snowboarding; roughly 120,000 skiers were hurt on the slopes; and almost 53,000 people injured themselves ice skating.

While alarming, these figures shouldn’t deter winter sports enthusiasts. With just a few simple tips, there are plenty of ways to keep you and your family climbing up the hill – and safely gliding back down it – time and time again:

• Master the skills. This doesn’t mean you have to be an expert – just be aware of what you can and cannot do, and don’t try to overextend yourself. Don’t run before you can walk – or, in this case, opt for the black diamond before you’ve conquered the bunny hill. You shouldn’t squeeze three people on a sled made for one, or attempt a triple axel when you’re still renting skates. You get the idea: building a basic foundation of skills is vital before moving on to bigger and better things. Beyond that, listen to your body and know what it’s capable of doing safely. Don’t go on “one last run” down the mountain when your muscles are screaming for the hot tub.

• Understand the risks. You know that feeling when you were 16 years old and thought you were invincible? If you haven’t yet seen the error of your ways, it’s time to come to grips with reality. Your body is susceptible to injury. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take risks, but rather, spend a few moments to recognize them. If you know going into a snowboarding run where there’s a potential for danger, you’re much more likely to take the precautions necessary to ensure you leave the mountain in one piece. Make sure you stay hydrated, are respectful of the terrain (ask others whether the hill is icy or if the snow is powdery), always participate with a partner and stick to the rules of the sport in which you are partaking. Above all, stay alert, and listen to your gut.

• Use appropriate gear. This tip is as straightforward as it sounds. It’s always better to over-prepare than be left in the lurch. That is, wear a helmet even if you’re pretty sure you won’t need one, wear extra layers of clothing (you can always take some off!), bring sunscreen, lip balm, etc. And make sure to check your equipment and ensure everything is in working order. It’s also a good idea to carry a cell phone if you’re far from assistance, just in case. So as you pick up your next pair of skis, or lace up those skates, or trudge up that hill, keep these tips in mind. It’s more likely you’ll make it back in front of the fireplace in one happy, healthy piece.

Leon S. Benson, MD, is division head of hand & upper extremity surgery at NorthShore Orthopaedic Institute, and is also an orthopaedic surgeon with Illinois Bone and Joint Institute.

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