Medical diving study in Cayman

Diving has “dramatic” effect on paraplegic divers, study shows

Disabled army veterans who did their scuba-diving certification in Cayman were subject to a medical study that concluded that diving improved their movement. 

Researchers at Johns Hopkins, who carried out the study in May, presented their findings last month at a Paralysed Veterans of America conference in Orlando, Florida. 

According to the researchers, the advances made by the wheelchair-bound veterans in the study were “dramatic”, with participants showing improved muscle movement, increased sensitivity to light touch and pinprick on the legs and large reductions in post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. 

The researchers cautioned that the results are preliminary as the study size was small and the duration of the benefits are unknown, but the 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,” said Dr. Adam Kaplin, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral services at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.  

“What we saw in the water strongly suggests there is some scuba-facilitated restoration of neurological and psychological function in paraplegics. It’s very provocative,” he added. 

In the study, 10 paraplegic veterans and nine able-bodied dive buddies underwent thorough neuropsychiatric evaluations and a neurologic evaluation. 

“We saw dramatic changes in a matter of days in a number of people with spinal cord injury who went scuba diving,” said co-researcher Dr. David Becker, head of Paediatric Restoration Therapy at the International Centre for Spinal Cord Injury at Kennedy Krieger Institute and an assistant professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins. 

“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,” he said. 

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

The researchers also found an average decrease of 15 per cent 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. 

The study was the brainchild of Cody Unser, 24, who has been paralysed from the chest down for more than 10 years after suffering an acute attack of transverse myelitis – a neurologic syndrome caused by inflammation of the spinal cord. 

Ms Unser had told Dr. Kaplin that she regained some feeling in her legs when she went scuba diving. Although sceptical at first, Dr. Kaplin joined forces with The Cody Unser First Step Foundation to undertake the study after meeting other wheelchair-bound people who told him the same thing. 

Shelley Unser, Cody’s mother, and president of the Foundation said her daughter has been trying to organise the study for years, and was encouraged by the late Christopher Reeves to get science to back up her theory that diving made her feel better. 

She said her daughter had also taken part in the study as one of the subjects. 

In his presentation at the Orlando conference, Dr. Kaplin said his team could not establish beyond a shadow of a doubt that the results were reproducible or durable nor how the scuba effects worked.  

However, he and Dr. Becker hope to do a larger randomised study to test their hypotheses. Dr. Kaplin said the follow-up study would cost about $250,000 – funds that were not yet in place. 

He told the Caymanian Compass that subjects were tested before they went scuba diving and again 24 hours after they completed their last dive to complete their diving certification. 

The group dived with Red Sail over a four-day period while in Cayman and dived some of the islands’ most popular sites, including the Kittiwake and Stingray City. 

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

Kittiwake divers Cayman Islands

The divers visited the Kittiwake wreck.
Amanda Nicholls

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