It is devastating physically and psychologically when a spinal cord injury leaves a person paralyzed and wheelchair-bound, especially as no currently known treatment can restore lost function or sensitivity to touch. But now an intriguing preliminary study suggests that scuba diving—yes, scuba diving—may bring about significant improvement.
Participants included 10 paraplegic veterans who had suffered spinal cord injuries an average of 15 years earlier… plus nine healthy “dive buddies” (the control group) whose prior scuba experience ranged from none to extensive. Over four days, participants completed scuba diving certification training, including nine dives. Various neurological and psychological tests were conducted before and after the dives.
Results: The healthy control group experienced no neurological changes. The paraplegic veterans showed an average 15% reduction in muscle spasticity… plus an average 10% increase in sensitivity to light touch and 5% increase in sensitivity to pinpricks on their paralyzed legs. In some participants, improvement in tone, sensation or motor function was as high as 30%. Researchers theorized that being weightless in water gave paraplegic patients whole-body resistance training opportunities not possible on land… that tissues benefited from increased oxygenation because patients could better fill their lungs when not confined to wheelchairs and/or because they were breathing pressurized air… and that nitrogen’s effects on patients’ nerves was a potential mechanism for improvement.
There were psychological benefits, as well. After the dives, veterans showed an average 15% decrease in symptoms of depression and obsessive compulsive disorder… and a striking 80% decrease in symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Researchers acknowledged that psychological effects may have been influenced by participants’ being taken on a Caribbean vacation, but said that the fun factor alone would not account for the level of improvement observed.
There was no follow-up study, so it is not known how long benefits persisted—more study is needed. To contribute to funding for future research, contact the Johns Hopkins Restore Team (www.hopkinsmedicine.org/neurology) or the Cody Unser First Step Foundation (www.cufsf.org).