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Before the Plunge – Protecting Against Traumatic Spine Injury in the Water

Dr. Anand Blog

June 22nd, 2018

Summertime is here, and with the warmer temperatures, longer days and fun in the sun, also comes the increase in traumatic spine injuries. Yes, it is during this time of the year that those of us who specialize in traumatic injury see an unfortunate rise in it in emergency rooms throughout the country. And one of the most common causes of devastating damage to the spine is something that is entirely preventable – diving head-first into water that is too shallow. Here are some things to help keep yourself and those you care about safe, while still enjoying summertime water activities.

Protecting Against Traumatic Spine Injury in the Water

First, we should highlight here that multiple retrospective analyses indicate that young men are the most at risk for traumatic spinal cord injury. And while the majority of these injuries also include automobile accidents and violence, it could be argued that those types of injuries aren’t 100 percent preventable because the person involved may be the victim in a car crash or a violent episode. Diving accidents are different. They are a risk an individual takes of their own free will. And so, we look at these as entirely preventable.

So what can be done to prevent diving-related spine injuries, paralysis and in extreme cases, deaths? In its public service campaign titled “One Shallow Dive Can Wreck a Neck,” The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons says that you should always jump into water feet-first if you don’t know how deep it is. If you plan to dive from a high point and the depth is known, make sure that the water is at least twice the height of the distance that you’re planning to dive. For example, if your dive is from a 10-foot height, be sure that the bottom of the surface you’re preparing to dive into is at least 20 feet below you.

The above recommendation is fine if the body of water is man-made. But in situations where a lake or ocean are the swimming source, the depths of these bodies of water can vary significantly from just a few feet. Rocky protrusions or sandbars, for example, can be located just inches from where a person thinks they’re diving. So even if you’ve inspected an area as “safe” for diving, if the dive is off by just a fraction, this can still result in catastrophic injury. So in environments where you are entirely unable to see the bottom of the body of water you’re diving into, don’t dive.

Though it seems like these recommendations can be fun-killers, it is essential for the public to understand that extreme spine injuries that result from them are very real. Nearly 26,000 diving-related injuries are treated in emergency rooms in the United States each year, with hundreds of them resulting in paralysis. We hear stories of friends or relatives pulling their loved ones out of the water because they aren't breathing or they can't move arms or legs. It is heartbreakingly tragic. We’ve seen too many young, otherwise healthy people suffer life-altering consequences of diving into too-shallow water. It just isn’t worth it, friends.


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