Surfs Up and So Are Injuries
Recreational and competitive surfing enjoys worldwide popularity in warm coastal communities. Common, yet ever changing, to all surfing is the medium — water and waves. Thus, injuries can be categorized as environmental, impact (board, bottom, or other surfers), and overuse (from paddling).
Environmental factors can include sun, wind, and water exposures. Long-term effects of sun-exposure or sunburns may reveal themselves years after exposure as skin cancer.
Hypothermia and dehydration can be deceptive. Some protection is afforded with proper wetsuit and preparation, but conditions should always be checked ahead of time. The combination of wind and cold-water exposure heightens risk of hypothermia.
Sea conditions, including tide, current, temperature, anticipated wave height and shape, as well as bottom consistency, should be checked before getting in the water. Unfortunately, even the best surfers are at risk for drowning and death in the changing sea. Additionally, sea creatures, including jellyfish, sea urchins, and of course, sharks, can create an unfriendly environment.
Recent research evaluated acute competitive surfing injuries and found a rate of 13 injuries per 1,000 hours. Risk of injury was 2.4 times greater when surfing in waves overhead and 2.6 times greater when surfing over a rock or reef bottom relative to a sandy bottom.
Older surfers, over age 40, have higher injury rates than those under 20.
Contact injuries, including cuts and bruises and fractures, are especially common. Many of these involve the surfers face from being hit by the board.
Non-contact injuries include shoulder overuse type injuries, as well as knee and ankle injuries.
Proper awareness and preparedness can help avoid many of these injuries and can increase performance and enjoyment of surfing, including the following:
• Having proper gear — a board free of sharp fiberglass, a nose protector, and proper length leash is critical. As mentioned, gear for sun and cold, including sunblock, rash guard, wetsuit, booties, and sometimes helmet can prevent acute and future issues.
• Understanding weather and wave conditions
• Surfing with a partner
• Hydrating properly before and after your time in the water
• Performing pre-surf conditioning and flexibility activities 15-minutes before getting in, such as stretching and jumping jacks or a short run
Core strength and swimming proficiency are also essential in making surfing a safe and enjoyable part of your active lifestyle.
Nathanson A, Bird S, Dao L, Tam-Sing K. A Prospective Study of Surfing-Related Injuries Among Contest Surfers. Am J Sports Med. 2007. Nathanson A, Everline C, Renneker M. Surf Survival, The Surfer’s Health Handbook. Skyhorse Publishing. 2011.