Diving After Spinal Back Surgery

I recently underwent spinal surgery to remove a prolapsed disc with some fused vertebrae. My symptoms have now all gone away. What is the current thinking on returning to diving after spinal surgery? Am I at more risk for a spinal "hit" type of decompression sickness? Can I dive without any problems, or do I need to take special precautions?
Spinal surgery is a general term covering several surgical procedures used in management of degenerative disc disease. The spinal cord should not be affected in this type of surgery. Currently, this surgery is a concern to diving medicine physicians, but it does not automatically disqualify candidates from diving. There is no evidence that surgery would predispose a diver to spinal cord decompression sickness, but there is concern about the disruption of blood supply to the area where the surgery was performed.

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.

2 Comments


Daniel - October 30th, 2016 at 6:14pm

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.

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