Ask the Doc: Is Snowboarding Bad for Your Knees?


If you live in an area that sees a lot of snow, you’ve likely tried your hand at some snowsports in order to pass the time and get the most out of the weather. Popular winter sports options include figure skating, curling, skiing and ski jumping, and snowboarding. However, many of these sports can be hard on the body, especially the knees.

Snowboarding is bad for your knees because it requires frequent bending and twisting. During movements like twisting and the many position changes, the knees absorb a significant portion of the stress of impact. This, in turn, weakens the knees, especially if not protected.

Interested in snowboarding but unsure of the risks? Read on! The rest of this article will look at why snowboarding is bad for your knees, what type of knee injuries you can sustain while snowboarding, and how to protect your knees in order to reduce the risk of injury.

Why Is Snowboarding Bad for the Knees?

Snowboarding can be bad for your knees because it requires you to constantly move your body, twisting it in order to make directional changes and making other rapid position changesIt is also an activity that results in repetitive impacts on joints.

Unless you’re snowboarding indoors or in a controlled course, there’s a good chance that you’re gliding over uneven ground with obstructions all over the place.

All of this takes a toll on your knees. There is some level of protection for your knees inbuilt into the sport – your feet are strapped to the board, which reduces the impact of twisting motions on your knees to some extent. However, this isn’t complete protection.

As you move down the slopes, your knees (and other joints) absorb the impact of the stress on your body. Furthermore, if you’re doing tricks with your snowboard (including jumps) or moving onto more extreme courses, the impact on your knees increases. 

Another factor that increases the stress to your knees is braking. You need to bend your knees (as well as your hips and ankles). This increases the pressure on your knees, and the harder you brake, the more stress is put on your knees – and the more you are at risk for injuring them.

Make sure to reduce hard brakes as much as possible when snowboarding. Also, make sure that you’re braking correctly and aren’t putting additional pressure on your knees.

You can look at this YouTube video to learn how to brake:

There are other factors that increase the risk of developing knee injuries when snowboarding, including:

  • Your hips are below your knees
  • The rear of your stance is off-balance
  • You’re using the wrong binding angles when riding your snowboard
  • You’re trying complex tricks as a beginner
  • You haven’t warmed up properly before snowboarding
  • You have a pre-existing knee injury, and you have not taken the proper precautions to protect it while snowboarding

Does Snowboarding Hurt Your Knees?

The overall incidence of injuries from snowboarding is less than 1%. Snowboarding injuries are less common than injuries from skiing. Leg injuries occur less frequently due to the differences between having both legs fixed into one position and traveling in same direction versus skis that allow leg position and movement to diverge.

The most frequently injured areas of the body include head, wrist, elbow, abdomen and ankles. There is a higher frequency of injuries in recreational snowboarders than the pros. Research indicates that about 17% of all injuries that snowboarders suffer are knee injuries. (Source Pub Med)

However, knee damage is not the same from person to person. Depending on the cause of the accident, there are various types of injuries that you can sustain as a snowboarder.

ACL Injuries

The anterior cruciate ligament, better known as the ACL, is one of the four major ligaments in your knee. Along with the posterior cruciate ligament (PCL), it is responsible for helping you maintain stability and balance.

ACL injuries, especially ACL tears, are among the most common knee injuries snowboarders sustain. Some ways you can damage your ACL include landing on an overextended knee or twisting a bent knee after landing on it. Additionally, collisions with solid objects like trees can also damage your ACL.

Depending on the severity of the tear in your ACL, recovery can be a lengthy process. It may be possible to treat a partial tear with rehab. However, if you have a full tear, or if you’ve ruptured your ACL, you will need to undergo surgery, though your physician will be able to guide you on your recovery process best. 

MCL Injuries

Another major ligament in your knee is the medial collateral ligament or the MCL. It is located on the inside of your knee joint and, like your ACL, is at risk of being damaged when snowboarding.

The most common type of MCL injury is by spraining the ligament. Sprains can occur due to twisting of the knee, including as a result of a fall or by overstretching your knee.

The severity of your sprain is classified on a numerical scale as first, second, and third-degree sprains. The most severe cases, especially third-degree MCL sprains, sometimes need surgery to fix completely.

Meniscus Tears

The menisci are disk-like joint cushioning tissue located between your femur and your tibia. The medial meniscus is located inside your knee deep to the MCL while the lateral meniscus is located outside the knee deep to the LCL.

When your feet are located firmly on a solid surface (like a snowboard), and your upper body is rotating, the pressure of the rotation places an immense amount of strain on the menisci. This can result in a meniscus tear.

Other common causes of meniscus tears include overextension or over-bending of the knee joint. These situations are common for snowboarders, which makes meniscus tears among the most common knee injuries you can face while snowboarding.

Repetitive small stresses on the meniscus can result in gradual damage and degeneration. If enough damage accumulates, it can become painful due to loss of cushioning ability for the knee joint. Typically this will worsen if the activities are continued. Arthroscopic repair and removal of the damaged tissue can relieve the pain and allow you to return to snowboarding.

The risk of repeat damage is higher after repair. Wearing a knee brace can help prevent this from occurring, and it is also beneficial to wear a brace after repair.

PCL Injuries

The posterior cruciate ligament, better known as the PCL, is another of the major knee ligaments. As mentioned above, along with the ACL, it helps stabilize your knee joint and helps protect your femur and tibia from becoming displaced.

As with the ACL, PCL injuries are relatively common knee injuries seen in snowboarders. The most common way to damage your PCL is by spraining it when you land on your knee during a fall or otherwise collide knee-first with another object.

Depending on the severity of the sprain or tear, your PCL may be able to heal on its own. However, for more severe injuries, there is a good chance that you may need surgery to ensure your PCL is back to normal. Additionally, if your PCL injury is a part of a more significant knee injury, surgery is more likely to be required. 

Surgery aims to repair the PCL. However, simply sewing it back together will not work, which is why PCL repair involves the replacement of the ligament with a tissue graft from a donor or another part of your body.

Ways in Which To Protect Your Knees When Snowboarding

While injuries are part and parcel of most sporting activities, including snowboarding, there are steps you can take to reduce your vulnerability to developing knee injuries. These include:

Strengthening Exercises

Exercising the muscles around your knee helps to strengthen them, which can, in turn, reduce the stress that snowboarding puts on the joint. Additionally, the stronger the muscles, the better they are prepared to handle the stress placed on the joint.

The best way to strengthen your muscles is to engage in supplemental conditioning. There are numerous knee exercises you can try. You can find multiple options online or speak to a physical trainer or doctor for recommendations. 

Some options for knee strengthening exercises include:

  • Straight leg lifts: Lie down on your back with one leg bent at the knee and the other laying straight. Tighten your thigh muscles in the straight leg and lift it off the floor until it is raised about 1 foot (0.3m) off the floor. Hold for a few seconds and lower your leg back to the floor. Repeat a few times, and then switch sides to exercise your other leg.
  • Hamstring curls: Hold onto a chair or other solid object for balance and place your weight onto one leg. Raise the other leg slowly, moving the heel of your leg towards your buttocks. Hold the position for a few seconds and lower your leg back to the floor. Repeat a few times, and then switch sides to exercise your other leg.
  • Wall squat: Stand with your facing the wall, ensuring that your back, head, and hips are touching the wall. Move your feet until they are a little away from the wall, and slowly slide down until you are in a crouching or nearly sitting position. Hold for a few seconds before standing slowly. Repeat a few times.    
A strengthening and stretching routine a few times per week is great for injury prevention and boosts performance.

Warm-Up Before Snowboarding

While supplemental conditioning can help with the long-term strengthening of your knee and the surrounding muscles, you should also make sure to warm up properly before hitting the slopes.

It’s essential to make sure you have stretched your body and joints properly before any form of physical activity. Additionally, other light exercises like jumping jacks and stretching your legs can help prepare your body for snowboarding and reduce the risk of injuries of all kinds, including knee injuries. Ideally, you should warm-up for about 10-15 minutes first.

Take Lessons

If you are a beginner, make sure to take lessons from a professional before you try snowboarding on slopes. Ideally, you should try to ensure that your instructor is certified by the American Association of Snowboard Instructors

By taking snowboarding lessons, you can ensure that you are using the proper snowboarding techniques. Boarding improperly increases the risk of you being injured while snowboarding, especially injuries to your knee. As mentioned above, one of the risk factors for developing a knee injury is breaking incorrectly, which is one of the things that an instructor will be able to guide you on.

Additionally, your instructor will also be able to guide you on elements of the sport that include:

  • How to position your body correctly on the board
  • How to deal with obstacles in your path
  • What to do if you start to lose control of your board

Use the Right Equipment

A significant part of protecting your knees while snowboarding is ensuring that you’re using the right equipment to protect them as much as possible. This includes making sure that you’re wearing clothes that are not only thick enough to absorb some of the impact that falls on your knee but also have enough space for you to accommodate a knee brace.

A knee brace is perhaps the most helpful piece of equipment when it comes to protecting your knees from injuries. It not only stabilizes your knee, it also reduces the risk of hyperextension and limits the strain to your ACL. 

Braces can also help after you’ve left the slopes, as they help you deal with the pain of any knee injuries that you may have suffered. This, in turn, makes it easier for your body to heal, as there is less stress being placed upon the injured area.

There are numerous knee braces available that are specifically designed for snowboarders. I would recommend the DonJoy Performance Fullstop Bionic Knee Brace from Amazon. This brace has been designed to protect both your ACL and meniscus. Its thermal heat regulation prevents overheating and ensures the brace is comfortable to wear. (Source)

Know Your Route

When you’re snowboarding on mountain slopes, make sure you’re as familiar with the route you’re taking as possible. This helps you prepare for potential obstacles you may encounter and reduces the risk of you injuring yourself because you were caught off-guard.

If possible, conduct a practice run through the course. This may mean walking the course, taking a look at images of the course, or boarding the course at a gentle speed. Again, this will help you prepare for when you board the course at full speed.

Improve Your Stability

The more stable you are on your board, the better you can move your body and reduce the stress on your knees by absorbing the impact of those movements. Practicing your stance can help better your stability, as can boarding down practice courses before trying real slopes.

Post-Boarding Care

Protecting your knees doesn’t just involve ensuring you’re making the right choices before and during your time snowboarding, it also means taking care of your knees once you’ve left the mountain.

Snowboarding is not the only activity that can place stress on your knees. Everyday activities, including ones as simple as walking, also put pressure on your knees due to the impact of gravity on your body.

After a major snowboarding trip, avoid heavy activity as far as possible and rest your knee as much as you can. If your knees are sore, apply an ice pack to help speed up healing and reduce pain, and don’t lift heavy items, bend, or twist until your knee is feeling okay once more.

If you don’t give your body a chance to heal post a snowboarding trip, you run the risk of exacerbating a minor bruise or accidentally overworking yourself and developing a knee injury. Taking a little time off ensures you won’t have to spend a significant amount of time recovering from major knee damage.

Conclusion

Snowboarding can be viewed as safe for your knees since it doesn’t cause as much damage as skiing can. However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t injure your knees at all.

Some of the injuries you can sustain include MCL and ACL injuries. But it’s important to remember that knee injuries aren’t an inevitability. You can reduce the risk of developing an injury, including wearing knee braces and stretching properly before hitting the slopes. 

Additionally, if you’re a new snowboarder, ensure you’ve been trained properly – snowboarding incorrectly can increase the pressure on your knees and increase your injury risk.

Tim Conner, M.D.

Dr. Conner is a practicing physician with 35 years of experience in trauma radiology. He has personal interests in the mechanics of sports related trauma, head and neck injuries from auto racing and general trauma radiology. As an extreme sports participant, he has considerable knowledge of the importance of using proper technique and protective equipment to reduce or prevent injuries.

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