Many adults suffer from intermittent or chronic back pain, thanks in part to our primarily sedentary lifestyles. Spinal injuries particularly can limit access to exercise and sporting opportunities. While such issues don’t necessarily preclude scuba diving, back problems do require extra considerations. When done correctly, diving can even provide pain relief and an escape from chronic back pain. Here are our top tips for scuba diving with chronic back pain, to both avoid aggravating existing conditions and minimize the risk of further injury.
Appropriate weight distribution varies between divers and injury types, and adjusting the location of dive weights can significantly reduce back pain. Lower back injuries can be less painful with weights placed at the front of a weight belt rather than upon the lower back. Placing some weight on the tank also reduces the spinal load, as does placing weights in the pockets of a BCD rather than on a belt.
Traditional BCDs or a back-plate-and-wing styles may be more comfortable for a diver suffering from back pain, depending on the shape of the spine and nature of the injury. When choosing a BC, it’s worth taking the time to try on multiple styles and investigate different companies and sizes to ensure the proper fit. If possible, rent BCs in different styles when you dive to test them out underwater before purchasing.
Being cold can easily aggravate a back condition when shivering and muscle tensing begins. It is essential to choose a wetsuit or drysuit and undersuit combination that will maintain good body warmth even after a full day of diving. The addition of a thermal undergarment under neoprene, such as those made by Lavacore, can make a significant difference to body temperature without the need for purchasing a thicker wetsuit. Fourth Element Arctics are excellent quality thermal undersuits for drysuit diving, and offer exceptional warmth during and post-dive.
Zips and seals:
If mobility and back strength are an issue, an exposure-protection suit that allows for front-entry, or one with zips that are easily reachable, can be helpful. Consider the ease of entry and exit from the suit. If you’re buying a semi-dry or drysuit, make sure you can release the wrist and neck seals with minimal tugging.
Fins and masks:
Open-heel fins with metal-spring fin straps allow for quick and easy removal of fins with minimal bending required. A wide field-of-vision mask is also helpful for reducing the need to crane and twist the neck during a dive to fully enjoy the view.
Strong currents and surge can be challenging for divers with back injuries, as they require almost constant adjustment of body positioning to be comfortable. Shore dives can also be difficult if they involve stepping over uneven ground and entering the water through surf. In contrast, shallow and calm dives are easy on the spine. These also offer the opportunity to end the dive if back pain presents itself suddenly. Boat-based diving is also easier on calm days and if the water-entry and -exit considerations below are used.
Water entry and exit
Explaining your injury and asking for help from a divemaster or instructor before beginning a dive is worthwhile. A good staff member (or dive buddy) will be more than happy to assist with carrying dive gear to the water or boat’s edge. This will help minimize compression of the spine from the weight of the gear. Consideration should also be given to alternative water entries other than giant strides and back rolls. Sitting at the edge of boat, jetty or equivalent before putting on the BCD, tank and weights can minimize back pain. You can also put your gear on once you’re already in the water. When exiting the water, remove your gear and pass it up to a dive buddy or staff member on the boat (or ashore) rather than exiting fully geared up.
Body position and finning
Maintaining correct body positioning within the water and choosing an appropriate finning style can help minimize back pain. Scissor kicks from the hips are a great way to gain momentum, but can cause back strain given the back naturally arches and tenses to accommodate that style of finning. A good alternative finning technique is the frog kick. Ask a buddy or instructor to check your body positioning as well to help correct any unnatural back arching or strain, while also assessing weight distribution in-water to minimize drag.
Maintaining body warmth post-dive is important for comfort and to minimize muscle strain, especially after cold dives. Donning warm gear, including a thick woolen hat or hooded sweatshirt is essential. Bring along a flask of hot drinks and some snacks as well. Wearing a warm hat between dives is a great way to reduce heat loss if a diver prefers to keep their wetsuit on. Changing entirely into dry clothes between dives is preferable, though.
Back pain is notoriously unpredictable and likely to occur without warning, especially with herniated-disc injuries. It’s wise to carry a basic survival kit while diving at home. Include pain relief and anti-inflammatory drugs, as well as a back brace if appropriate or recommended by a physician. When traveling overseas, it’s also worth including items that are hard to obtain in a foreign country. Bring an ice-gel pack, a hot-water bottle, a tennis ball for self-massage, and an exercise band for stretching leg muscles without mobilizing a painful spine. It’s also worth obtaining the contact details of a local physician, chiropractor or massage therapist before any injury occurs.
A long-term commitment to spinal care is necessary to prevent future injuries and minimize the impact of existing ones. A physical therapist can provide a daily stretching routine to maintain mobility; regular practice of Pilates and yoga also improves core strength. Swimming is an excellent way to reduce back pain, though athletes should consider stroke styles. Finally, when it comes to diet, there’s a wealth of information available about anti-inflammatory and collagen-rich foods to aid injury recovery. When it comes to diving, back pain can be a challenge. With the right precautions and gear, however, you can continue diving.