Most of the injuries that send ocean swimmers to the emergency room do not happen out deep, but in the relatively shallow area where the waves are crashing.
A Delaware doctor, who noticed a lot of variability in the number of patients with beach injuries visiting his ER, is now in the middle of a three-year study trying to figure out why.
“I would work days in the summertime where we wouldn’t have any injuries from the surf at all in the emergency department, and then we would have days where we would see three, four, five, maybe six injuries,” said Dr. Paul Cowan, chief of emergency medicine at Beebe Medical Center in Lewes.
In a research study looking at environmental factors that make the surf most dangerous, Cowan and collaborators noted ruptured spleens, liver lacerations, dislocated shoulders, and 22 spinal injuries last year—mostly from patients hitting the ocean floor after being knocked over by a wave in knee- to chest-deep water. More than 400 injuries were recorded last summer, and two deaths in the past two years.
Cowan and other researchers think the injury variability is about more than the height of the waves. They are tracking injury rates, water temperature, wind speed and direction, and swimmer count.
Once Cowan and his team analyze the data, they hope to come up with educational materials and an early warning system for swimmers.
So far, they have noticed more injuries in inexperienced out-of-towners than those who live near the beach. Victims are older and more likely to be female than the average trauma patient.
“We’re finding that the people that are injured are a little bit older than the average trauma patient in this country, and it’s a mixed gender injury,” Cowan said. “The average age is in the 50s and the incidence of injury is 50 percent between male and female.”
Rip tides are another matter
Injuries in the shallow surf zone come primarily from collision with the ocean floor. Another ocean menace—rip tides, the strong, concentrated currents that can pull swimmers out to sea—can cause drowning, but rarely land victims in the hospital.
Still, that doesn’t mean they aren’t dangerous. Joe Miketta, meteorologist with the National Weather Service forecast office in Mount Holly, N.J., said they have record of 26 rip-tide deaths since 1994 off the New Jersey coast and four off the Delaware coast.
“People who are caught in them, their natural reaction is to try to swim right directly toward the beach area … which is sometimes the wrong thing, because they’re so strong that people exhaust themselves before people can make it back to the beach,” Miketta said.
Miketta recommends swimming parallel with the beach until getting out of the rip current, and then swimming back to shore .