Friday, January 15, 2016

Preventing Frostbite When Skiing

Terry McEnany, MD, served as a cardiovascular surgeon and clinical educator for 25 years. Now engaged in a second career as a ski instructor, Dr. Terry McEnany works with students at Ski and Snowboard Schools of Aspen, Colorado.

Defined as the freezing of body tissues, frostbite can develop with any overexposure to cold temperatures. This may occur with extended exposure to moderately cold temperatures or with brief exposures to extreme cold. In either case, skin begins to signal damage with pain and subsequently with numbness as ice crystals form within the tissue.

Insulation of the extremities is key to preventing this process, as parts of the body farthest from the heart are also those most susceptible to frostbite. Skiers should carefully layer both hands and feet, preferably with a wicking under-layer that keeps moisture away from the skin. Any moisture, including that produced by blowing warm air on the fingers, can lower skin temperature. When hands or head do become warm, the skier should remove outer layers before sweat forms.

Physical activity may also be helpful in keeping the extremities warm, though excessive wind renders this strategy less effective. In fact, wind chill stands out as a contributing factor to frostbite and should prompt a skier to be more mindful of temperature sensations. If the skier does notice a numbness in the extremities, immediate overall warmth or a warm-water soak may prevent the condition from progressing further. Severe cases or cases that involve loss of sensation typically require medical attention.                            

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