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Look before you leap: Preventing spinal cord injuries this summer

Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital July 1, 2014 General Wellness
Last Updated on May 29, 2018

Summer is upon us, and we can now enjoy hot, sunny days quenched by a refreshing dip in the nearest body of cool water, be it the pool, lake, river, bay or ocean. Morgan Ferrante, aquatic therapy coordinator at Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital, part of Main Line Health, reminds us to look before we leap.

“Summertime water activities are great fun, but can also present serious danger,” says Ferrante. “In fact, swimming and diving accidents represent the fourth leading cause−or 8.5 percent−of spinal cord injuries in the U.S. Many of these injuries could have been prevented if simple safety guidelines were followed.”

According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, diving accidents account for more than 1,800 spinal cord injuries each year, with the majority resulting in complete paralysis. Those injured are primarily young men.

What do you need to know before taking that invigorating dip or dive?

Understanding water depth

Guidelines published by the American Red Cross state that water depth for diving should be at least nine feet, with no underwater obstacles. At the pool, look for clear signage indicating water depth. Use extreme caution when entering natural bodies of water, as the underwater environment is ever-changing.

“Even if you’re familiar with a natural body of water, the depth will change based on multiple factors−the tide, the amount of rain, underwater obstacles that may shift, and more,” explains Ferrante. “At Bryn Mawr Rehab, we’ve been working with a patient who suffered a spinal cord injury diving from the same spot into the same lake he’s been swimming in throughout his entire childhood. He was unaware that the depth had changed due to a lack of rain that year.”

Says Ferrante, “Always test water depth before considering a dive. If you have any doubt about the depth, enter feet first.”


Ferrante cautions us that whether in familiar territory or unchartered waters, depth is not necessarily what it appears to be. Visual cues can be misleading depending on whether you are indoors or out, as well as the light of day versus twilight or nighttime. Natural bodies of water are often murky, providing a cloudy view at best. Even when one area appears deep, a nearby area may harbor rocks, debris and other obstacles.

“Never dive into murky waters where you cannot see the bottom,” says Ferrante,

Rip currents

Wherever you might be−near home or travelling on vacation−learn about the local water conditions, currents and rules. Be sure to obey posted signs and warnings, and recognize that warnings may not always be present.

At the beach, familiarize yourself with the warnings signified by various colored flags. Meanings can vary from one beach to another. Watch carefully for signs of rip currents−they can easily take away your control and sweep you underwater. If you get caught in a rip current, swim parallel to the shore until you are free from the current, then swim diagonally toward the shore.

Never swim in a lake or river after a storm if the water seems to be rising, or if there is flooding, as currents can become strong. The clarity and depth of the water may have changed, and new hazards may be present.

“Water accidents don’t only occur from diving,” says Ferrante. “Rip currents and other underwater conditions can toss swimmers around, causing collisions with the surface below or with other objects.”

Lifeguard on duty

A certified lifeguard or someone trained in water safety should always be onsite. Swim only in supervised areas where lifeguards are present.

It is important to note that approximately half of all spinal cord injuries resulting from pool accidents occur during a party. If you are planning a party, consider having someone trained in water safety onsite.

Alcohol and water

Remember that alcohol and water do not mix. Alcohol not only affects judgment, it impairs balance, coordination and vision. Do not drink and swim. Do not drink and dive.

Be smart

Following are a few more tips to stay safe this summer:

  • Learn how to swim properly. If you are an inexperienced swimmer or lack confidence in your abilities, wear a life jacket or other flotation device.
  • Never swim alone. Use the buddy system and look out for each other. Do not attempt to swim if you are tired, cold or overheated. When swimming in open water, never run and enter waves headfirst.
  • Never dive into above-ground pools.
  • Only one person at a time should stand on a diving board. Dive only off the end of the board. Do not run on the board, do not try to dive far out, and do not bounce more than once.

“Spinal cord injuries from swimming and diving accidents happen more often than people realize, and they can happen to anyone,” says Ferrante. “We urge everyone to observe these simple guidelines to help prevent what might otherwise be a catastrophic and life-altering injury. Please keep water safety top-of-mind this summer as you enjoy all of the fun activities the season brings.”