Avoiding a knee injury on the slopes – a knee surgeon and ski enthusiast’s advice

knee injury on the slopes

As temperatures begin to drop, many people will be considering booking a ski holiday. Although ski injuries can be prevented with adequate preparation, accidents still happen. And knee injuries make up one-third of total recreational skiing injuries.

In recent years, the most common knee injury on the slopes involves a rupture of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). Before the introduction of carving skis, damage to the medial collateral ligament (MCL) was a more common knee injury, but it often accompanies an ACL injury.

Here, we look at ways to minimise the risk of a ski-related knee injury. Also, knee surgeon and ski enthusiast, Neil Hunt, gives his advice on what to do when a ski knee injury occurs.

Minimising a ski knee injury

Many injuries occur at the end of a long day on the slopes, when the muscles are tired. That’s why it’s important to prepare the muscles with strength and conditioning exercises, ideally practised several weeks in advance of a ski trip. Recent research found that exercises such as squats and lunges, which can help develop the thigh muscles ahead of a ski trip, can also lower the risk of needing a knee replacement later in life.

When you’ve not skied for a while, consider taking refresher classes with a qualified ski instructor. Understanding safe skiing techniques, as well as correct ways of falling and warming up, can keep you safe and injury-free. It is best not to take risks, and to know your limits when it comes to tackling different grades of runs. Also, it is important to allow the body to recover from a hard day on the slopes with adequate rest.

Choosing the correct ski equipment is another fundamental to staying safe. Boots need to be adapted specifically for you and your ability, but also for the ski conditions. For example, bindings that don’t release properly can put additional force through the knee, causing an injury.

What to do when a knee injury occurs on the slopes

Many ski injuries affecting the knee will be low grade, affecting the soft tissue and can be immediately treated with the RICE method (Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation). If you’re still experiencing a lot of pain, then get a confirmed diagnosis, but don’t rush into surgery.

“The important consideration when a knee ski injury occurs, is to always get an early diagnosis and a consultation with a knee expert to discuss your options,” says knee surgeon Neil Hunt, advising that patients get advice sooner rather than later. “Ideally, get an MRI scan for an accurate diagnosis.”

With ACL injuries, an ACL repair may be the recommended treatment in many cases, rather than reconstruction surgery. But, this can only be decided with an early diagnosis and scan.

“A confirmed diagnosis will help with immediate treatment and rehabilitation, as well as indicating how urgently surgery may be required” he says.

And, in most cases, it’s prudent to wait until you’ve returned to the UK before seeking treatment.

Don’t be rushed into surgery

After experiencing a fall or injury when skiing abroad, you may be evacuated from the slope and taken straight to a surgeon, who may want to operate sooner than is necessary. Not knowing a surgeon’s credentials, alongside language or cultural medical barriers can put you at risk of long-term issues, such as knee stiffness. Also, understanding aftercare advice, including any recommended physio can be an issue.

“For the majority of cases, there are absolutely no negative implications in delaying treatment for a couple of weeks. It needs planning. But that doesn’t mean urgent surgery in the resort. And most of the time, it’s better not to.”