The health risks of big wave surfing

October 30, 2013 | Surfing
Maya Gabeira: CPR saved her life

Maya Gabeira nearly escaped death by drowning, in Nazaré. What are the impacts and risks of big wave surfing to the physical and mental health of extreme surfing athletes?

The European Association of Surfing Doctors (EASD) analyzed Maya Gabeira's shocking wipeout at Praia do Norte, Nazaré, Portugal. As big wave surfing steps into greater dangers, medical professionals try to understand what can be made to save lives.

"There is a high demand for the professionalization of the medical setup of events, including risk-assessments and the presence of qualified pre-hospital care teams", explains Dion van de Schoot, a resident Emergency Medicine professional.

"In incident of Maya Gabeira, the initial contact with the water on high velocity caused her primary injury. Then, the surfer rapidly reaches depths where the pressure difference is high enough to cause barotrauma, in all air-filled spaces of the body".

Big wave surfers such as Garrett McNamara, Andrew Cotton, Carlos Burle and Maya Gabeira may suffer severe head, C-spine, trunk/pelvic injuries from direct impacts on the surface of the water. Violent acceleration and deceleration forces can force internal injuries and ligament tears, luxations of joints and fractures.

The big pressure differences, due hold-downs and impact of wave, can also cause drum perforations and pneumothoraxes. But Maya also could have suffered injuries when she was rescued by Burle.

"In the moment of the exact water retrieval, C-spine control is always desirable, but often challenging to perform. In the water ski retrieval, pulling with a cord can be lethal because of prolonged exposure to airway blockade and risk of hypoxia due to drowning" adds Dion van de Schoot.

Finally, the professional of the European Association of Surfing Doctors, underlines a very important issue. Resuscitation should start immediately on the beach and, due to the high energetic trauma and risk of drowning, the patient should be evacuated to the nearest medical center for further evaluation.

The EASD aspires to unify all the evidence-based concepts of marine rescue, and life support for the potentially critically-injured surfer, in their Advanced Surfing Medicine Life Support (ASLS) Course.

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