Diving After Spinal Back Surgery
The formation of scar tissue and altered blood flow may not allow for the most effective off gassing of nitrogen from surrounding tissue once it is absorbed during the dive. Actually, it is the physical limitations after surgery which may be a more important consideration. A diver with a history of back surgery is exposed to the possibility of a second back injury in two ways: by lifting and carrying dive equipment or by simply moving about with full equipment on board the dive vessel.
Once a diver returns to full activity after surgery and has no residual symptoms such as numbness, tingling, pain or burning sensations in the legs, the back problem is probably corrected. The diver can return to scuba diving as long as symptoms don't recur with exercise or other activities. Extra precautions after back surgery include: donning equipment after entering the water; limiting dive depths and times; increasing the length of surface intervals; and reducing diving frequency. Limiting exposure to high partial pressures of nitrogen is the best way to avoid decompression illness.
In June 2011, I suffered a severe compression fracture of my T12 vertebra in a foolish kitesurfing accident. The reconstructive surgery was very groundbreaking and my recovery was faster than it usually is with fusions and traditional compression fracture surgeries. Following the surgery, there was no spinal cord damage, but a lot of reconstruction work was involved on the vertebra, including 4 small incisions on either side of my spine. I essentially had to stay in bed for a month and a half, and had to wear a back brace for a while after that. After about 3 months I took up kayaking and by the end of the year I was diving again. Of course the first and foremost thing you should do is heed the advice of your surgeon and your physiotherapist. In my case, the best advice I received from my physio (after she was happy with my recovery) was to let any discomfort be my indicator about what was acceptable to do, and how soon. I would recommend easing into diving, particularly when it comes to the physical aspects of it, such as lifting heavy equipment and climbing into boats. Especially lifting. Ease into new activities slowly, and if you feel any pain or discomfort, stop what you're doing and give yourself more time to recover. Remember that your muscles have been cut through, and they need time to bind together again before you can put too much strain on them. Listen to the advice of your physiotherapist, and don't push yourself unreasonably. However, there can be great value in gradually becoming active again, once you've recovered enough to do so. This can really speed the remainder of your recovery, and does wonders for your mental condition as well - which, I believe, is crucial to your physical recovery. A year after my accident, I was completing my Divemaster course and I was still very actively kayaking. I wish you all the best of luck.
Thanks, Daniel, for your report. I have just had lower back fusion and have six screws in place. Four months out I have worked hard and am back playing tennis etc. What concerns me is I tried to go back to my volunteer diving to clean tanks at the aquarium on a hookah and the 15 lbs from the weight belt made my back start to ache. Dang. So I ended the dive. My BCD's weights are on the side, and I can always put BCD on in the water, but is there anything that can strengthen my back muscles. I don't have a real dive trip until Fall, but I'd really like to get back to my volunteer diving! Any suggestions would be appreciated and the aquarium needs me.
Glad to hear that your back operation was successful and that you are able to play tennis again. Well done!
You did the right thing to terminate your work dive when you experienced pain. It seems to me that you are just not yet 'work fit' enough for tank cleaning.
To assist you on the road to regain your back muscle strength I would recommend the services of the allied professions physiotherapy and/or occupational therapy.
Both these disciplines can focus on the weak areas and assist you with the correct physical treatment and strengthening exercises.
Hope you can get strong and pain-free quickly!