Winter in Montana can be as intimidating as it is awe-inspiring.
For those who live in a more tropical climate, one thing that may come to mind when thinking of Montana is the winter. They perceive it as a ferocious climate with prolonged ice, snow and bitter cold. What they don’t know (sshhh!) is that some of us who are lucky enough to live here look forward to the winter and enjoy participating in outdoor sports activities.
The “Southerners” are right, however: Montana winters can be dangerous. Obviously. The trick is to have fun safely.
Popular sports here are downhill skiing and snowboarding. With at least 15 ski resorts in this state, our epic mountain areas feature affordable tickets and scant lift lines, which makes these activities reasonable for almost anyone.
The most common safety-related injuries in downhill sports are fractures, sprains and strains. Probably the most important factor in preventing these types of injuries is being in shape. You are significantly more likely to sustain an injury if you are “deconditioned.” Prior to skiing or snowboarding, there are many simple ways to increase endurance and strength.
Consider enrolling in a conditioning program at your gym or starting a home exercise program. Ask your doctor what is best for you. A personal regimen could include weight lifting, stretching, cardiovascular training or yoga. Be sure to warm up before you hit the slopes, and listen to your body. Take breaks during the day as needed.
Verify that all of your equipment fits properly. If you are a skier, consider discarding your pole if you know that you will fall — it can help prevent injury to the thumb.
If you are a beginning snowboarder, consider buying a pair of knee and wrist guards to wear while you’re learning, when frequent falling is the norm, to prevent injury.
Wear a helmet. Hitting your head on a hard surface, especially at high speeds, may cause a concussion. Concussions are common and can take you out of activity for a week or more, or can even end your season.
Protect your eyes. Snow blindness can occur with exposure to the reflected sunlight off the snow. Symptoms include eye pain, tearing of the eyes, blurred vision and pain with bright light. It usually occurs six to 12 hours after prolonged sun exposure and may be so painful that it wakes you up at night.
It should be evaluated by a doctor and can be treated with antibiotic ointment and sunglasses. When selecting eye protection, make sure that the lenses are shatter resistant — special plastics like polycarbonate are safest. Also, lenses should absorb as much UVA and UVB as possible.
Remember the sun
On that note, don’t forget about sunburns, even in the winter. The same effect that causes snow blindness can cause sunburn. Choose a waterproof or water-resistant agent that blocks both UVA and UVB, as both types of rays can cause damage. Sunscreens with an SPF of at least 30 block greater than 96 percent of UVB rays. Chemical agents that provide protection against damaging rays include avobenzone, ecamsule, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, to name a few. Look for these agents on the labels. The key to preventing sunburn, whether it’s summer or winter, is applying enough sunscreen several times throughout the day.
Finally, an ever-present potential hazard of Montana winters is hypothermia, which occurs when body temperature drops below normal.
The key to defeating this adversary is, as with all of the above, prevention. Dressing in layers and preparing for changing weather conditions is critical. An external layer that is wind- and water-resistant can facilitate staying warm, even in the toughest conditions. Disposable heat sources such as pocket warmers can come in handy in a pinch, even on the slopes during a particularly cold day.
Bottom line: Listen to the Boy Scouts. Preparation and prevention can get you through almost anything. Safe travels as you enjoy the winter in Montana.
Amber Clark, M.D., is a family medicine resident with the Montana Family Medicine Residency at RiverStone Health. She can be reached at 247-3350.