Figure Skating Injuries

Figure skating, which involves balance, flexibility, strength (the male in a skating duo may have to lift and hold the female skater above his head), explosive power when launching into a jump, and the jarring impact of touchdown from a jump. All these can stress the muscles, bones, joints, and skin, and so can produce injuries. Such injuries are suffered by both recreational skaters and elite athletes.

For the recreational figure skater, injuries happen most commonly due to falling. The impact with the hard ice surface can be bruising. Then, icing the injured area and rest are usually sufficient to deal with the discomfort.

However, a fall can cause more serious injuries to both the recreational and elite skater. A backward tumble can cause the head to strike the ice. This can produce a concussion. Skaters are advised to tuck their head forward when falling, so that the brunt of the impact is taken by the shoulders.

Another fairly common injury that occurs as the result of a fall is wrist injury, which usually occurs when skaters instinctively put out their arms to brace themselves for the impact. A wrist injury can be a relatively mild sprain, whose pain and swelling subsides within days or weeks, or can be a fracture or complete break. Fractures or breaks can occur in the radius and ulna bones of the forearm, and in a small bone called the navicual, which is located near the thumb bone. A fracture or break requires the immobilization of a cast. Competitive skaters, who do not want to forego training while the wrist heals, can opt for a lightweight fiberglass cast that does not hinder balance.

Knee injuries can occur in a fall. Usually, the injury is minor, leaving the skater with a sore knee and a bruise. However, a blow can more seriously damage the kneecap, even throwing the kneecap out of alignment. If not corrected by physiotherapy, the misalignment can cause progressive damage to the knee and the cartilage that keeps the knee stable. The result is called chondromalacia patellae.

Knees can also be damaged by the twisting force created during jumps or spins. Most commonly, such injury involves the ligaments that properly position the knee joint. Injury to the medial collateral ligament causes pain on the inside of the knee; rest and physiotherapy usually are sufficient for recovery. Damage to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), which produces pain at the front of the knee and can make the knee unable to support a skater's weight, can require surgery to correct.

Figure skater Elvis Stojko, wincing in pain due to groin injury, later takes the silver medal for men's free skate competition at Winter Olympics.

Injuries to other joints can occur over time with the repetitive motions and stress of skating. The hip joint is particularly susceptible. Deterioration of the hip can drive a skater from the ice. For example, hip injuries forced the retirement of 1996 U.S. men's champion Rudy Galindo, and the replacement of both hips while he was still in his 30s.

Foot injuries are an ever-present part of figure skating. A skater's feet are tightly secured in a leather or leather-synthetic composite boot, and so bear the brunt of the forces generated during the various motions on the ice. Repetitive stretching of the Achilles tendon located at the heel of the foot can cause inflammation (tendonitis). Modern ice skating boots can have a notch on the inside rear of the boot to lessen strain on the tendon. Tendonitis that affects the bottom of the feet is called plantar fasciitis; use of anti-inflammatory medication can help, as can fitting with custom-made orthotic inserts. Tendonitis can also occur in the ankle.

The feet can become deformed due to the physical stresses of skating. The most common deformity is a bunion, which is a bulge on a joint of the big toe. The top of the toes can also become calloused, a condition called hammer toes. Both conditions are caused by an improper fitting boot, which allows the foot to move inside the shoe.

The explosive power required to propel a skater upward into a jump puts tremendous pressure on leg and groin muscles. Muscle strains and tears can be a result. As a recent example, U.S. figure skater Michelle Kwan was hampered by a groin injury for much of 2006. Her injury made it impossible for her to compete at the trials to select the skaters who would compete at the Winter Olympics in Torino. While it was ruled that she could join the team, her injury proved too debilitating, and she withdrew on the eve of the women's competition.

Figure skating injuries have increased in severity during the 1990s. Until then, competitions required skaters to glide in a series of defined patterns to generate shapes that included a circle and a figure-eight. These gentle actions required balance. However, in the 1990s, the figure-carving maneuvers were eliminated from skating competitions and replaced with more physically demanding, and crowd-pleasing, jumps and spins. The increased physical stress began to take its toll.

SEE ALSO ACL injuries and female athletes; Cortisone steroid injections; Sports injuries.