Diving & Spinal Cord Injury


Diving and Spinal Cord InjuryRecreational swimming and diving rank third among all physical activities (after walking and camping), and is the most common activity among children. The fun of diving into a pool or other body of water too often turns into trauma that ends up in the emergency room. Each year more than 7,000 young Americans experience a diving accident. Consider the following:

  • The head and neck are the most common body area injured in a diving accident and account for more than half of all sports-related spinal cord injuries. The injuries are almost exclusively located in the cervical vertebrae
  • A large number of water-related spinal cord injuries can be catastrophic. The loss of sensation and movement in the upper and lower body (quadriplegia) or the loss of sensation and movement from the waist down (paraplegia) happens far too often. These injuries require a lifetime of care and medical treatment
  • 90% of diving-related accidents occur in water that is less than six feet deep. Even when the water is deep enough to prevent divers from hitting the bottom, the surface tension of the water can cause spinal injury if the diver hits the water improperly. In this regard, recreational and competitive divers alike are at risk
  • 90% of diving accidents occur in private residential swimming pools (66% in below ground pools/33% in above ground pools)
  • 70% of the injuries are the result of head first dives, 18 percent from jumps or cannonballs, and 12 percent from flips or handstands
  • Even an experienced diver can be seriously injured by diving improperly, diving into water less than 6 feet deep, falling off a diving board or sliding down a water slide head-first.

Diving Board/Platform Diving/Edge of Water Diving
Each year nearly 700 serious spinal cord injuries occur as a result of diving off a board or platform. Collision with a diving board or platform is the leading cause of these injuries. The odds of injury caused by contact with the diving board increases dramatically if a child or adolescent is attempting a flip, handstand or backward dive. Injuries such as broken bones, whiplash, spinal injury and lacerations can result from diving from the waters edge into a pool or other body of water.

Preventing Diving Accidents

The following measures can be taken to prevent diving accidents:

  • Always dive into a pool with your hands in front of you, so if anything hits the bottom of the pool, it’s your hands and arms, not your head
  • Always check the depth of the water and for any obstacles before diving. Diving should not be done in waters less than 6 feet deep
  • If in doubt about water depth, enter slowly, feet first
  • Never dive into murky water
  • Remember that in non-pool waters there may be submerged obstacles such as sandbanks, rocks and tree branches that are not visible from above the surface
  • For adolescents, young adults and older adults – Don’t Drink and Dive

Prevention strategies also include educating young children about water safety to prevent them from jumping into shallow or turbid water, requiring that adult supervision or a certified lifeguard is present, employing visible depth indicators around the pool, learning proper diving technique when attempting new and unusual dives, and installing soft pool bottoms.
Finally, remember that diving injuries to the cervical spine aren’t always visible or immediate. Neurological effects (such as nausea) might occur after the diver is out of the water and the correlation to the incident might not be obvious Other evidence of nerve damage may be observed immediately or after a delay. These include tingling in the extremities, vision problems, concussion and impaired motor function. All diving-related neck injuries should be evaluated by a head and neck specialist – delayed treatment can cause further complications.

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