Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Shades of Black and White: Skier's Toe (Nail)

Ever been skiing and noticed your toenail had turned black and incredibly painful at the end of the day? Was the entire nail black or only the base?  "Skier's toe" is a common and often very frustrating injury from skiing.

The medical term is a subungual hematoma, which simply means bleeding under the nail. This can occur from a single instance of trauma like dropping something on your toe, or from small, repetitive trauma like a too-small or too-big (so your foot slams back and forth) ski boot.

If this happens to you- do NOT wait to go in to a clinic, because the success rate in fixing this problem is much higher the earlier it is treated. The treatment procedure involves burning a tiny hole through the nail, which allows the trapped blood to drain. There is typically only a few drops, but the pain that small amount of blood causes underneath the nail (if not removed) is fairly intense.

As with so many medical problems, PREVENTION is key! Make sure your ski boots fit properly- don't cram your foot into a friend's boots- and be sure your socks are not bunched up. Using the newer thin ski socks, rather than old school super thick ones, also helps. (Don't worry, the new fabrics keep your toes warmer, despite what it might appear.) This painful injury should NOT occur if your shoes/boots fit correctly.

BOTTOM LINE: Make sure your ski boots and socks fit properly, and avoid getting skier's toe!

PS. In prior blog posts regarding this injury, people have commented about home remedies. While in experienced hands, the red-hot tip of a flame-sterilized paperclip may be used to swiftly burn a tiny hole through the nail, I would definitely NOT recommend trying this on your own. Among other challenges, people have been known to pass out from simply watching this procedure done on another person's toe...

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Check Your ALTITUDE!

Going skiing for winter break? Whether you prefer downhill or cross country skiing, please remember that the high altitude might add in a few medical challenges. Be aware of signs and symptoms of "mountain sickness" (aka. altitude sickness) and if you are susceptible to this issue, look closely at ski resort ALTITUDES. Full disclosure, my destination of choice is Crested Butte, CO, which is one of the higher pun intended.

HOW HIGH do you have to be for altitude sickness?
There is not a set elevation for typical mountain vacations that affects everyone. Symptoms are uncommon at altitudes below 5000 feet above sea level, and fairly common above 8000 feet. If you fly to a higher elevation (such as above 8000 feet), wait a day to acclimate before you start hiking the high peaks nearby. This is very common- an estimated 75% of people visiting mountains with altitudes higher than 10,000 feet will get some degree of altitude sickness. Note that many people have a significant difference in degree of symptoms between altitudes of 9000-13,000 feet- which may explain why they "felt fine" skiing last year at a different resort.

For Colorado skiers: 
The highest ski mountains are in Arapahoe Basin and Loveland (13K), with Breckenridge barely under at 12,993'. Snowmass/Aspen, Keystone and Copper Mtns peak at roughly 12,300-12,500', with Crested Butte and Winter Park closer to 12K. Vail is 11,500 while Durango and Steamboat are around 10, 500. To get below 10K, consider Buttermilk at Aspen (max 9900) or Steamboat Springs Howelsen Ski Area at only 7,136. Obviously the ski towns themselves are not at these peak mountain summit heights, and many resorts offer lodging at a variety of elevations- consider this factor when deciding about the convenience of ski in, ski out, as sometimes you are better off further down the mountain.

When does altitude sickness begin?
Symptoms usually start within the first 24 hours, and often as early as the first few hours after arrival.

What are the common signs?
  • Mild to moderate: HEADACHE, decreased appetite or nausea, insomnia, and lightheadedness
  • Severe:  All of the above plus vomiting and shortness of breath
  • Note that in severe forms, there can be brain swelling (High Altitude Cerebral Edema) and/or fluid collecting in the lungs (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema)- these are medical emergencies.

Ultimately, going to a lower elevation will relieve symptoms, but rest and hydration will alleviate most mild symptoms. For persistent or worsening symptoms, head to a clinic for possible oxygen and medications. For mild insomnia, try over the counter melatonin.

  • Increased hydration with water or sports drinks, and avoidance of diuretics like CAFFEINE and ALCOHOL, especially the first few days.
  • SLOW ASCENT if possible (driving up to the mountains is lower risk than flying).
  • If you have had altitude sickness previously, especially if it has occurred on multiple trips to the same elevation, see your doctor and consider prophylactic medications (acetazolamide or steroids).

BOTTOM LINE: Don't let the mountains literally take your breath away- plan ahead to prevent altitude sickness!