In the fiscal year 2010-2011, more than 5,600 Canadians of all ages were hospitalized with serious injuries related to winter sports and recreational activities, says a report by the Canadian Institute for Health Information.
"When we look at the breakdown, the majority are actually related to either broken bones or sprains and strains," said Greg Webster, CIHI's director of primary health care information and clinical registries. "Head injuries are the minority, but they are also obviously very serious injuries.
"Also people may have multiple injuries, for example if they actually run into a tree or there's a high-speed collision on the ski hill."
Skiing and snowboarding accounted for the largest proportion of serious injuries, with more than 2,300 Canadians admitted to hospital after being hurt in a skiing or snowboarding mishap, CIHI reported Tuesday.
The number of injuries from the two sports combined more than doubled the 1,114 hockey-related harms requiring hospitalization. Other seasonal activities that led to a hospital stay of at least one night included ice skating (889); snowmobiling (1,126); and tobogganing (171).
"These numbers do not include visits that involve only the emergency department or a doctor’s office, or deaths at the scene," said Webster. "So the total number of injuries is actually much higher.”
In fact, the number of injuries from seasonal activities that sent Canadians to emergency departments alone is estimated to be 10 times the number of hospitalizations, said Webster, extrapolating from Ontario data that saw a total of 45,270 ED visits in 2010–2011.
Canadians need to be aware "when they're out participating in these wonderful winter activities that they also keep in mind that they should be following safe practices — wearing the proper equipment and also taking steps to minimize their risks of injury," Webster said.
That message is especially important for children and youth aged 10 to 19, who accounted for half of all hospitalizations for hockey injuries and almost one-third of those related to skiing and snowboarding falls and crashes, the report found.
"And within that age group, over 80 per cent of the injuries are accounted for by boys," Webster said. "So this is obviously a group that could be targeted for injury-prevention, both in the area of hockey and also skiing and snowboarding."
When it comes to children younger than age 10, the most common reason for a hospital stay was an injury from skiing, snowboarding or tobogganing.
Bruce Haynes, president of the Ontario Snow Resorts Association, said Canadians make about 20 million visits to the slopes each year, and skiing and snowboarding by their nature contain a certain element of risk.
"So look at the number of accidents that you're having compared to the visits that are out there and I think you'll find the numbers pretty small."
Haynes said his association of about 50 snow resorts in Ontario, as well as similar organizations across the country, ask visitors to follow the Alpine and Nordic (cross-country) responsibility codes to help prevent injury-causing accidents on the slopes. The group also supports the wearing of helmets and promotes the education of skiers and snowboarders in their use.
Overall ski helmet use in Canada rose to 75 per cent last year from 32 per cent eight years ago, says the Canadian Ski Council, with about 95 per cent of children under 14 wearing the head protection while skiing or boarding.
Still, 415 Canadians were admitted to hospital for head injuries related to a winter sport or recreational activity last year, with almost a third (135) occurring while skiing or snowboarding, CIHI found. Over the past five years, a total of 759 head-injury hospitalizations were related to ski hill activities.
"I think we're all increasingly aware of the severe consequences of a head injury, that it's not as simple as an event that occurs and someone has a headache for a few days," said Webster. "There can be lifelong consequences in terms of personality changes, depression, people not being able to work.
"While the numbers aren't necessarily in the majority, these are really important injuries to prevent at all ages, but especially when we see them happening amongst young people or people who are working and supporting their families."
On Tuesday, the Canadian Paediatric Society called on governments to make helmets mandatory for skiers and snowboarders of all ages.
“When it comes to winter, it’s important that Canadians get outside to play and enjoy our slopes,” Dr. Natalie Yanchar, medical director at IWK Trauma Care in Halifax, said in a statement. “Wearing a helmet is important for all ages to prevent a fun day in the snow from ending in tragedy.
"Without question, it reduces the risk of serious head injuries in case of a crash.”
The CIHI report found snowmobiling was the only winter recreational activity in which injuries were not dominated by younger Canadians: two-thirds, or 752 out of 1,126, of serious snowmobile injuries occurred in adults age 20 to 49.
"But the highest number of all in terms of winter injuries — although it's not sport-related — is among seniors, where over 7,000 Canadians were hospitalized due to falls on the ice," Webster said. "And 70 per cent of those were people aged 50 and older."
CIHI report: www.cihi.ca
Ski helmets: www.myhelmet.ca
Ontario Snow Resorts Association: www.skiontario.ca/code.php