The benefits of therapeutic scuba are manifold. The weightlessness resulting from immersion in water allows the participant a respite from the chronic pain of a recent injury. Simultaneously, the increased resistance of water to movement improves muscle strength, so veterans can make more progress with less pain through diving than with land-based rehabilitative sports. It’s been proven over the years that diving helps with muscle strength, increases endurance and balance, heightens mobility, reduces overall pain and improves blood flow. In 2011, Professional Association of Dive Instructors (PADI ) worked in conjunction with the Cody Unser First Step Foundation, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury to conduct a 6-week study evaluating the benefits of diving for war veterans with paralysis. The trial, which was carried out in the Cayman Islands with the help of 10 paralyzed soldiers, showed improvement averages including a 15% drop in muscle spasticity, a 10% increase in light-touch sensitivity and a 5% increase in sensitivity to pinprick. Specialists in spinal-cord injury at Johns Hopkins even think that diving may temporarily restore some physical function to paralyzed veterans as a result of the body’s increased output of serotonin under pressure.
Increased serotonin levels also contribute to the emotional benefits of therapeutic scuba diving. Rehabilitative scuba not only aids physical recovery, but can also improve veterans mental health to such an extent that the symptoms of PTSD are often alleviated. Diving also helps ease the mental trauma of finding oneself suddenly physically handicapped; for many soldiers, the realization that losing a limb doesn’t necessarily preclude them from adventurous pursuits is key in restoring self-confidence and positivity. Diving is a catalyst as a confidence booster. It’s tough for someone physically active to come home missing a limb or two and not be able to do the things they used to enjoy. Then they discover they can dive as well as anyone else. Underwater, decreased pain and increased quietude allow veterans to focus on their recovery and regain a sense of control over their future. Most importantly, diving is a natural antidote to the sense of isolation that often afflicts wounded soldiers. Many veterans suffering life-altering injuries attest to the difficulty of reintegrating with society and family on their return home, but the inclusiveness of the dive community and the close bond of the buddy system help them to overcome feelings of social detachment.
Dive4Vets offers scuba classes in the warm south Florida waters for wounded veterans, and organizes dive trips to destinations like Bimini, Grand Bahama, Freeport, and other tropical locations. There are several other organizations dedicated to the concept of therapeutic scuba, including the Wounded Warrior Project, Dive Heart, and Deptherapy. The former organizes an annual diving trip to Bonaire for recuperating soldiers, while Deptherapy offers twice-yearly dive training modules for British war veterans in Key Largo. Scotsman Fraser Bathgate, the Vice President and Training Director for the International Association of Handicapped Divers, founded Deptherapy. As the victim of a climbing accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down, Bathgate knows the curative properties of diving for body and soul alike.
Participants in these programs often require modified equipment to facilitate their disabilities, from fins adapted for prosthetic legs to cylinders fitted with motorized propellers to aid propulsion through the water.