Snowboarding Ankle Injuries

By Dev K. Mishra, M.D., President, Sideline Sports Doc, Clinical Assistant Professor of Orthopedic Surgery, Stanford University

Key Points:

  • Snowboarders tend to get more ankle injuries than skiers, and skiers tend to get more knee injuries than snowboarders
  • The “snowboarder’s fracture” is unique to ankle injuries in snowboarding
  • A fracture of the “lateral process of the talus” is sometimes missed on regular x-rays and it’s sometimes necessary to use specialized imaging to make a proper diagnosis
  • When treated early and properly this fracture will typically allow full return of sports participation but a missed diagnosis can result in significant problems

In this post I’m going to discuss a particular type of broken bone seen in snowboarding snowboardoften referred to as “the snowboarder’s fracture.” This particular fracture occurs in one of the ankle bones called “the talus”. A fracture in the lateral process of the talus is called the snowboarder’s fracture.

Patterns of injury are a bit different in snowboarding compared to skiing. Skiers tend to get more knee injuries than ankle injuries, and snowboarders tend to get more ankle injuries than knee injuries. One proposed reason for this difference is due to the less rigid boots used in snowboarding, which provide minimal protection to the ankle joint.

Most ankle injuries in snowboarding affect the lead leg. And about half of all ankle injuries in snowboarding are fractures. The “snowboarder’s fracture” occurs because of sudden upward movement of the foot, combined with the foot turning inwards. This injury typically occurs when landing from a jump. Pain is present on the outer side of the foot and ankle, and is often associated with swelling, bruising and significant tenderness to touch. Unfortunately, this injury is often missed, because regular X-rays don’t always show the fracture very well. If I’m suspicious for a snowboarder’s fracture and the x-rays look normal, I’ll often order a CAT scan as this can be a much more accurate way to diagnose this fracture.

Treatment of the snowboarder’s fracture depends on how big and how displaced the broken fragment is. For a small fracture that is in normal alignment, we can treat these without surgery. This typically means about 4 to 6 weeks of having the foot and ankle in a cast and no weight bearing on the leg. Large and displaced fractures are typically treated with surgery—the fragment is moved back into its normal position and screws are inserted to hold it in place. Recovery after surgery also includes a period of non-weight-bearing, followed by gradual restoration of motion, strength, and function of the ankle joint.

ssd.bannerOutcomes of snowboarder’s fractures are typically good if the injury is diagnosed early and appropriately treated.

Most athletes are able to get back to normal physical activity within 4 to 6 months. However, significant problems can result if this fracture is missed and appropriate treatment is delayed. These include non-healed bony fragments causing pain and poor function, as well as early arthritis of the joint, which can significantly limit movement of the foot. When a snowboarder presents with acute pain on the outer side of the foot or ankle after an injury on the slopes, it’s very important to see a skilled physician for a proper exam and appropriate diagnostic imaging to avoid missing this injury.