05:08 AM

Winter Olympics wipeouts: Top orthopaedic doctors discuss which injuries will dominate the 2022 games and how injuries are treated and prevented

LOS ANGELES — With the Winter Olympics beginning this week, Americans will soon be thrilled with the prowess of the best skiers, snowboarders and ice skaters in the world.

However, orthopaedic physicians and surgeons view the games through a different lens: What types of injuries will dominate the games, how are injuries treated and what can Olympic athletes — and those of us at home — do to prevent injuries? Three Keck Medicine of USC orthopaedic doctors weigh in:

What Winter Olympic sports are the most dangerous and what injuries can we expect to see? 

“Skiing and snowboarding are some of the most dangerous Winter Olympic sports because of the risk of falling at high speeds and/or great heights. If an athlete falls, the most common injury is a concussion. The second is a shoulder injury because people typically fall on their arm, and the shoulder absorbs the blow. Broken collarbones are also common.

“Speed skating also presents a special challenge. Skaters can collide, and when they do, they may not only get injured from the collision or from falling but may suffer lacerations from a skate blade.

“Falling can be more dangerous during the Winter Olympics than the Summer Olympics not only due to the speed of the sports, but because the cold weather tenses up muscles and makes athletes more prone to injury upon impact. However, elite athletes at this level have learned how to fall as safely as possible, which can help them avoid severe injuries no matter how spectacular a wipe out may look.”

–   Joseph Liu, MD, orthopaedic surgeon, Keck Medicine of USC; USC Athletics team physician; and assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery, Keck School of Medicine of USC

When an athlete is injured at the Olympic Games, what medical protocol is followed and how is it determined if they can return to competition?

“The team trainer is usually the first person to evaluate an injured athlete, then the team doctor(s) if the injury is serious, such as a broken leg or head injury. If an athlete needs urgent medical attention, they will be treated by paramedics or other emergency personnel.

“The athlete will be given diagnostic tests, such as an X-ray or MRI, as needed, to determine the extent of the injury. An athlete will be cleared to return to competition under two conditions: 1) if the athlete wants to continue to compete, and 2) the physician determines that continuing will not cause further injury.

“Physicians tend to be conservative and err on the side of caution when deciding if an athlete should continue to compete. However, even athletes who get the green light may have to play through the pain of a minor injury, such as a low-grade ankle sprain. The pain can be minimized through taping or bracing the affected limb and anti-inflammatory pain medication.”

–  Frank Petrigliano, MD, chief of the USC Epstein Family Center for Sports Medicine, Keck Medicine of USC; head team physician for the Los Angeles Kings hockey team; and associate professor of clinical orthopaedic surgery, Keck School of Medicine of USC


How can Olympic athletes — and all of us at home — minimize injuries?

“One way some Olympic athletes avoid overtraining and enhance performance is through periodization training. This program allows athletes to perform both endurance workouts (for example, an easy-to-moderate 90-minute bike ride) and those that focus on intensity (a 30-minute, high-intensity interval spin class) to reach a particular goal over a certain period of time.

“The general population can benefit from this type of phased training. They can also get many of the same benefits through cross training, which minimizes injury from repetitive strain. For example, runners may want to add yoga or weightlifting to their workouts.

“I also recommend that people avoid pushing their bodies too hard or too fast, especially when starting a new sport. Injuries tend to occur when muscles and joints are overused and when people are fatigued. 

“When warming up for a sport, we now know that dynamic stretches or exercises, such as jumping jacks, leg swings and arm circles, are the best way to prime your muscles for exertion. Save any static stretches, where you hold poses for several seconds, for the cool down to build flexibility​, promote recovery and maximize future performance.”

 Cara Hall, MD, sports medicine orthopaedic physician, Keck Medicine of USC; team physician for USC Athletics and the Los Angeles Kings hockey team; and assistant professor of clinical orthopaedic surgery, Keck School of Medicine of USC


Which Olympic sports really get these Keck Medicine of USC orthopaedic physicians’ hearts racing:
  • Joseph Liu, MD:   The luge. It seems impossible that athletes can barrel down an icy track at high speed on their backs, feet first, and end up in one piece. 
  • Frank Petrigliano, MD:  The super giant slalom skiing event where skiers travel some 90 miles per hour without any protective gear except for a helmet. And the ski jump – where athletes sail above the ground at a high speed.
  • Cara Hall, MD:  The bobsleigh and all of the so-called sliding sports, which include the luge and the skeleton, look terrifying.