Snowkiting, a new extreme sport

Snowkiting, the latest extreme sport to meld wind power with the acrobatics of snowboarding and skiing, is growing in popularity and its participants are at growing risk of injury.

Snowkiting, sometimes also called kite boarding, is similar to "kite surfing," in which a rider on a small board is pulled across the water by a large inflated kite or sail.

In snowkiting, the sail is often fabric or foil and the rider wears skis or a snowboard to traverse snowy slopes, glaciers or frozen lakes. In both sports, high speeds and elaborate flips and jumps are part of the fun.

But that thrill comes at a high price, according to the study published in American Journal of Sports Medicine.

High injuries

Over one winter season, Philipp Moroder, research fellow in traumatology and sports injuries at Paracelsus Medical University in Salzburg, Austria, and his colleagues tracked 80 snowkiters to record the number and types of injuries they sustained.

Overall, the 13 women and 67 men had 33 injuries, mostly cuts and scrapes, although there were more than a dozen serious injuries, such as joint sprains, ligament ruptures or broken bones.

For every 1,000 hours the snowkiters were out riding, about 8 injuries occurred. The most frequently injured sites were the back (30%), followed the knees (24%), shoulders (21%) and head (21%).

Beginners more likely to get hurt

Not surprisingly, beginners were much more likely to get hurt, with about 20 injuries per 1,000 hours of play, compared to 5 among the experts in the same amount of time.

Most beginners' injuries were minor, however, while the experts' injuries tended to be severe. This difference is probably because experts are more likely to try big jumps, the researchers write, and to go out when wind velocities are high enough to keep the novices from riding.

Snowkiters who rode snowboards were hurt three times more often than those who used skis, with 12 injuries per 1,000 hours of play versus 4 per 1,000 hours among the skiers. That pattern is in keeping with injury rates for traditional snowboarding compared with skiing, the researchers note.

Low head injuries, high back injuries

Most snowkiters wear helmets, according to the Austrian study, and Moroder's team credits that fact with the relatively low proportion of head injuries seen in the study.

Only half wore back protectors –a shirt-style hard-plastic upper-body armour designed to protect spine and shoulders during extreme sports.

Since about a third of the damage snowkiters sustained was to their backs, perhaps not enough people are wearing them, said Dr Michael Joseph, assistant professor of physical therapy at the University of Connecticut, Storrs.

Compare the rate of 8 injuries per 1,000 hours of snowkiting with the 3 skiers that get hurt over the same time period, Dr Joseph noted.

Snowkiting is mostly done on a flat surface or a hill, but one aspect of the sport can include jumping anywhere from one foot to 100 feet in the air, Russell said. Riders "can launch up into the air like paragliding, and get a hang time of up to a minute," he said.

(Reuters Health, Leigh Krietsch Boerner, March 2011)

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