For some patients suffering with neurological and physical disabilities, a potentially life-changing therapy can’t be found in a doctor’s office.

Instead, TBI, cerebral palsy, MS, and Parkinson’s disease patients might find relief at the bottom of the ocean with adaptive scuba diving.

“The ideal classified diver is anyone who has a desire to explore the weightlessness and the beauty of the underwater world,” says Charley Oxley, an ICU nurse and adaptive diving instructor. “Anyone who is willing to jump in a world that they’ve never seen before and experience what it’s like to be in an environment outside of their wheelchair, outside of being dependent on crutches or walkers or prosthetics.”

Oxley is president of Classified Diving Center and serves as a consultant and medical expert for Scuba Schools International (SSI), which runs an adaptive diving program.

Based in Houston, Texas, she works with dive centers across the U.S. She has even dived with the disabled in places like the Caribbean Islands, Hawaii, Argentina, and Japan.

Oxley has seen a therapeutic effect on the people who learn to dive despite their disability. One diver with a C5-C6 incomplete spinal cord injury told her that being in the water calms his muscle spasms and helps his bladder function unlike anything else.

Another scuba student with a C3-C4 injury reported being able to move their arm for the first time in almost 12 years, she said.

“Whether or not the diving has truly impacted that, or diving created a psychological and a community change that inspired and gave him a renewed sense of hope, it doesn’t matter,” Oxley said. “He’s starting to move an arm again.”

Prioritizing Patient Safety in Therapy

Adaptive diving is an option for patients ages 12 or older who can breathe on their own. Use of a baclofen pump or morphine, or the need for supplemental oxygen, disqualify an individual.

Divers use traditional diving equipment, Oxley said. But they can add adaptive gear, like swim gloves or an underwater propulsion vehicle, if needed.

Most divers have a specially-trained “dive buddy” to help them and can get more help if they need it. All adaptive diving instructors are CPR- and first aid-certified and hold rescue diving certifications. Additionally, they go through extensive training to ensure that they understand the unique issues faced by those with disabilities.

SSI’s adaptive diving programs are available at dive centers in 35 states where much of the initial training is done in swimming pools. Many schools take divers on destination trips to places with warmer waters like the Cayman Islands or the Bahamas.

Oxley encourages anyone interested in learning more about the SSI adaptive diving program to reach out via the Classified Diving Center’s website.

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