PENSACOLA — Every year, millions of people visit U.S. beaches during the summer. However, many people are unaware of the dangers capable of turning a vacation day into a medical emergency.
During the summer, Sacred Heart Hospital neurosurgeon Dr. Samuel Critides and his colleagues see patients who sustain spinal cord injuries from diving headfirst into the water. People who sustain these types of injuries go to Sacred Heart Hospital for emergency surgery and receive treatment in the Level II Adult and Pediatric Trauma Center. It’s the area’s only hospital equipped to treat these injuries.
“Diving is one of the most preventable causes of spinal cord injuries,” Critides says. “The public is aware of the dangers of diving into a shallow pool, but many don’t think twice about diving into a wave at the beach.”
The depth of the water on the shoreline can be deceiving. A shore break can cause waves to break directly on the wet sand, causing a rapid transition from deep to shallow water. According to the National Ocean Service, both small and high waves can be equally as unpredictable and dangerous. The power of a shore break can cause injuries to extremities and the cervical spine. Spinal cord injuries often occur when diving headfirst into the water or tumbling from the force of the waves.
Critides recalls a recent beach accident where a patient miscalculated the strength of a wave while doing somersaults and landed on the back of his neck. The impact caused a spine injury that paralyzed him from the neck down. Fortunately, Critides performed decompression surgery that relieved pressure on the spinal nerves and reversed his temporary paralysis.
“Wet sand is just as unyielding as concrete,” Critides says. “Landing on your head, neck or back on this hard surface can cause fractured bones or possible paralysis.”
According to the U.S. Lifesaving Organization, a nonprofit professional association of beach lifeguards and open water rescuers, beachgoers can stay safe this summer by following a few precautions:
1. Ask before entering. Talk to the lifeguards on duty and ask them about water conditions or hazardous areas to avoid.
2. Go feet first, the first time. Before diving, check for water depth and obstructions by walking out into the surf rather than running and diving.
3. Extend a hand. Use caution while bodysurfing; always extend a hand ahead of you.
4. Keep an eye on the waves. Never turn away from the waves. The force of a wave can cause serious injuries.