Scuba diving helps vets with spinal cord injury

| 30/09/2011

(CNS): Researchers studying ten wheelchair dependent divers on a four-day scuba diving certification trip to the Cayman Islands in May say their study strongly suggests there is some scuba-facilitated restoration of neurological and psychological function in paraplegics. The divers, all veterans with spinal cord injuries, saw significant improvement in muscle movement, increased sensitivity to light touch and pinprick on the legs, and large reductions in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. The Johns Hopkins researchers, while calling the advances made over the course of a few days “dramatic,” caution that the results are preliminary, the study size small and the duration of the benefits are unknown.

However, in an article on the John Hopkins Medical website they say the findings suggest there may be a pathway for restoring neurological and psychological function in paraplegics that has been overlooked thus far.

Adam Kaplin, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral services at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and Daniel Becker, M.D., head of Pediatric Restoration Therapy at the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury (ICSCI) at Kennedy Krieger Institute and an assistant professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins, conducted tests on the 10 injured veterans and nine healthy “dive buddy” control subjects.

Before the dives, Kaplin and Becker conducted a series of neurological and psychological tests on all 19 subjects. They measured muscle spasticity, motor control and sensitivity to pinprick and light touch, as well as symptoms found in depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, hostility and PTSD. Then the participants underwent scuba certification, which included a series of nine dives over the course of four days. Eight of the 10 paraplegics ultimately completed the dives. At the end, all 19 participants were reassessed.

“We saw dramatic changes in a matter of days in a number of people with spinal cord injury who went scuba diving,” Becker says. “This is just a pilot study, but to see such a restoration of neurological function and significant improvement in PTSD symptoms over such a short period of time was unprecedented.”

The researchers saw an average 15 percent reduction in muscle spasticity in those disabled veterans who went diving and an average 10 percent increase in sensitivity to light touch and five percent to pinprick. In some individuals the improvement in tone, sensation or motor function was between 20 and 30 percent. The healthy controls experienced no neurologic changes.

The researchers also found an average decrease of 15 percent in obsessive compulsive disorder symptoms in the disabled divers, a similar decrease in signs of depression, and an overall decrease in mental problems using a validated psychological assessment.

Kaplin concedes those improvements may have been influenced by the fact that the subjects were taken on a Caribbean vacation and got to go diving on a beautiful reef. But the most striking psychological impact was seen in PTSD symptoms, which decreased, on average, by 80 percent in those veterans who went diving. Escaping to a tranquil beach setting, Kaplin says, wouldn’t be enough to account for such an apparent escape from PTSD symptoms.

“They were challenged with something that made them anxious and they mastered it,” Kaplin says. He adds that the regulated breathing needed to make the body buoyant and to control movement in the water may have also helped to relax the veterans and made them better able to control their symptoms.

The researchers say they don’t really know how to explain the effect scuba diving may be having on the bodies of those with spinal cord injuries. Kaplin says it is possible that weightlessness in the water may play a role in improvements found in paraplegic veterans. Deep in the water, divers are buoyant and don’t have to fight gravity, while the water allows for a kind of global resistance training they can’t experience on land. They can also better fill their lungs in the water since their breathing isn’t hindered by sitting in a wheelchair. It is also possible that increased oxygenation of tissues from the pressurized air may have resulted in the improved muscle tone, strength and sensitivity the researchers identified.

The researchers would like to do a follow-up study which would compare results after scuba, snorkeling and time spent in a hyperbaric chamber simulating underwater dives. These may be able to tease out what role may be played by exercise and what role may be played by air pressure.

“Is there something healing happening under there?” Becker asks. “There’s a signal but only by repeating these results and showing significant improvements can we establish that. It’s too early to know for sure.”

The Cody Unser First Step Foundation, which is involved in education and research about disability in general and transverse myelitis specifically, sponsored the pilot study to see if there was any credibility to the anecdotal evidence of paralyzed divers.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Great news but not a surprise to me!!!!  When my son's dog had an operation for its spine as it was paralysed and could not walk, he had to take the dog swimming every day. In no time the dog recovered and was able to walk again!!!!   

  2. Anonymous says:

    Great news, lets see the government use some initiative and create a medical program for people/veterans with disabilities-a rehab program in an environment like Cayman would be a unique, niche product that would help give back some good press to the island and bring in much needed revenue!

    • Love this idea! says:

      This is a wonderful opportunity.  It will be available for all dive operators.  They would all be able to advertise towards this niche market.  That means everyone in the industry can benefit.  Unlike that tech zone which is a monopoly market.

  3. Anonymous says:

    That's great!

  4. Slowpoke says:

    This is pretty exciting research.  It will be interesting to see how long these improvements will last for and/or how they can be maintained.  It makes sense that providing individuals suffering from PTSD with new skills to control their environment, would cause a reduction in the severity of their symptoms.  With the alarmingly high rate of PTSD resulting from all the endless Middle East wars, this would seem to be a great opportunity for the H.S.A., C.T.M.H., S.MU. Medical school, etc., to join in on a larger research project.


    But just to be difficult, there was a study published in the last couple of weeks, that showed smoking ganja in the first 24 hours after a potentially PTSD inducing incident, significantly reduced the likelihood of developing the disorder.