Orthopedics & Spine

The dangers of diving


July 6, 2022

Summer brings with it long days on the lake or at the pool — and a heightened risk of traumatic spinal cord injuries. Here’s what you need to know.

“I really love this statement: The only safe dive is the dive you never take.”

That’s the advice of Vanderbilt University Medical Center injury prevention coordinator Cathy Wilson, M.S.N. Diving — whether it’s into a pool or into a creek, river, or lake — is the fourth-leading cause of spinal cord injuries. Many patients with these injuries are left with partial or complete neurologic impairment.

“These types of injuries are completely preventable, because, truly, you should never be diving unless you are in a very specific area that’s designated for diving,” Wilson said. “Otherwise, you just shouldn’t do it, because you don’t know what dangers are lurking.”

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The danger of diving in waterways

Never dive in water that is unmarked (meaning you do not know the depth) and murky (meaning you cannot see below the surface), even if you’re familiar with the body of water or that particular spot.  “Water levels change constantly, as do terrain and obstructions,” Wilson said.  “If you can’t see what’s under the surface of the water and you don’t know how deep it is,  you absolutely should not dive.”

The same applies to jumping feet-first into a lake, river or creek, Wilson warned. The force of hitting something concealed in the water, even feet-first, is enough to cause major bodily injury — even to your spinal cord.

The danger of diving in pools

Most diving-related spinal cord injuries happen in pools that are too shallow or too narrow to dive into — the diver hits the bottom of the pool or the far side. However, even if you’re diving in a diving-designated area, there are still safety rules to follow:

  • Dive only off the end of a diving board.
  • Only bounce once before diving.
  • Do not run and dive.
  • Do not dive alone.
  • Follow proper form — do not attempt flips or twists.

If a pool does not have a diving-designated area, do not attempt to dive. It is simply not worth the risk.

Possible injuries

The velocity of your body entering the pool during a dive is incredible — around 15 feet per second. Therefore, if you make contact with the bottom of the pool or an obstruction in a waterway, the force on your spinal cord is immensely traumatic, capable of causing an array of injuries, Wilson said. Your vertebra could fracture and fragment, impinging your spinal cord either partially or completely. In the absence of a fracture, you could also experience extreme flexion or extension of the neck, which could cause shearing of the neurological tissue  or injury to the ligaments.

First aid for head and neck injuries

If a head or neck injury is suspected, it’s important to keep the diver flat and still in an attempt to keep spinal alignment and to restrict motion of the spine. Keep the diver still and flat until a medical authority with proper immobilization equipment can intervene.

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