Scuba Diving Improves Muscle Movement for Veterans With Spinal Cord Injuries

A small group of veterans with spinal cord injuries who underwent a 4-day scuba diving certification had a 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. According to Johns Hopkins researchers, findings suggest there may be a pathway for restoring neurological and psychological function in paraplegics that has been overlooked thus far.

“There is no treatment for people with chronic spinal cord injury and many believe once you’ve lost the communication between the brain and the extremities, there is nothing you can do to restore lost function,” Adam Kaplin, MD, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral services at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine said in a press release. “What we saw in the water strongly suggests there is some scuba-facilitated restoration of neurological and psychological function in paraplegics. It is very provocative.”

Kaplin, presented the findings at the Paralyzed Veterans of America conference in Orlando, emphasized that his team cannot “establish beyond a shadow of a doubt that what we saw is reproducible or durable.” Nor could he explain how the scuba effects may have worked, though he and co-researcher Daniel Becker, MD, head of Pediatric Restoration Therapy at the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury at Kennedy Krieger Institute and an assistant professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins.

The researchers saw an average 15% reduction in muscle spasticity in those disabled veterans who went diving and an average 10% increase in sensitivity to light touch and 5% to pinprick. In some individuals the improvement in tone, sensation or motor function was between 20% and 30%. The healthy controls experienced no neurologic changes.

The researchers also found an average decrease of 15% 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.

“We saw dramatic changes in a matter of days in a number of people with spinal cord injury who went scuba diving,” Becker. “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.”

Kaplin said the 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% 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.

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.

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