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Peril on the Water: Safety Requires More Than a Life Vest

By Dr. Molly Casey

Water Safety

Summer is upon us! Even with the quarantine, shelter in place, phasing in or out businesses, or total free-for-all, people will be out and about in the sunshine. One of the favorite summer pastimes is water sports. Folks usually don’t pay attention to anything other than life preservers when it comes to water safety, and they are important for sure. But it is also important to know other risks of thrilling water activities. Everything comes with risk, even walking out your front door for a walk. So I am not in any way saying don’t participate in water sports. Do, however, be aware and know what to do if any of these things do happen to you or your loved ones.

Common Water Injuries

Here are some common injuries that can take place when you play in the water.

Sprain and strain - You sprain a ligament, you strain your muscles. Think of these injuries as pulls, or small micro tears, of the tissue whether it’s a ligament that connects two bones or a muscle and tendon attachment. These are common in the hamstring when the muscle is working extremely hard against the drag of the water in order to get up on water skis, for example. A sprain or strain can easily occur in the neck and shoulders as they tense up against the pull of the rope off the back of the boat while getting up on those same water skis or a wakeboard.

Wiping out - This is when you bite it. Whether it’s happened to you on a skateboard, a bike, or misjudging the curb, if you’re reading this far into the article, you’ve bitten it at some point in your life. Maybe it was a belly flop off of a high dive. Maybe it was your uncle driving the speed boat and took a quick, hard turn on purpose to dump you off the skis or tube? Or perhaps you hit a wave resulting from another speed boat’s wake and it turned you upside down. However it happens or whatever you call it, this is traumatic to the body. While strains, sprains, and bruising can certainly be common with these, all of the body’s joints take a hit with these falls. Joints are meant to move -- and move well. When they undergo whole body traumas, even if diffuse -- like when your whole body hits the water at once -- the impact still affects joints in a wide variety of ways. One very common way this occurs is when the range of motion of the joint decreases, becomes restricted, or even locks up. This may or may not be noticeable to you.

Whiplash - We usually hear of whiplash only when speaking in reference to auto accidents. Car wrecks are not the only collision that can cause whiplash. Whiplash is an injury of the cervical spine (neck) that occurs because the neck has been forcibly and quickly moved backwards, frontwards, and backwards again. This commonly occurs with wiping out on water skis, wakeboards, or water tubing behind a boat. It can also happen if someone is unexpectedly tossed in the water from land or vessel. It’s not about what action caused the injury rather than what motion or direction the neck goes in because of the injury. Strains, sprains, decreased joint motion, stiffness, pain, ringing in the ears, blurred vision, and all sorts of other lasting effects can occur with this injury.

Colliding with foreign objects - This may sound crazy. I promise, it’s not. There were 633 accidental boating deaths in 2018, and 2,511 injuries. Since there was a boat, clearly these fit into the collision with foreign objects category. Now, one can also collide with the bottom of a pool or lake, and other freestanding objects within the water -- including rocks, stumps, or another human. The point here is that major accidents and injuries can occur from other objects. Be aware.

After the Fact

If an accident or injury occurs that appears to be life-threatening or very severe in nature, get emergency responders on scene as soon as possible. In fact, whenever spending good amounts of time on the water with a core group of people, it’s highly advisable someone is trained in first aid or lifeguard skills.

If the circumstance is neither life-threatening nor very severe in nature, stay calm and get care as soon as reasonably possible. All of the risks above affect the spine, and the function of it, either directly because of the impact or indirectly because of structural association (for example muscle or ligament attachments.) So, if you have a regular chiropractor, it is always a wise thing to see your chiropractor after a weekend on the beach, lake, or river to get your spine checked and adjusted. It would also be wise to do it prior to a long weekend on the water if you know you’ll be playing hard. When you show up in tip-top spinal joint shape, those same joints are able to better withstand whatever stress they may endure over the weekend.

Summer can be a great time. Water sports and fun can be an incredible time. But folks too often throw caution to the wind when they get on the water. Remember, there is more to safety than the life vest.

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