The Inertia Health Editor
Take two of these and call me in the morning. Photo: Cyrus Sutton

Take two of these and call me in the morning. Photo: Cyrus Sutton


The Inertia

To many surfers, myself included, surfing is a cure-all. Be it a rough day at work, a long day of class or just day-to-day stress, there is no medicine quite like getting in the water for an hour or two. However, there are others out there for whom surfing provides actual medical treatment. Research is being done around the world testing surfing’s therapeutic effects for all kinds of maladies. In a world full of symptom-specific pills and IVs, doctors and patients alike are beginning to understand the value of treatment that addresses a patient’s overall wellbeing. Surfing uniquely provides both broad and specific benefits. Engaging in a challenging ocean sport like surfing encourages overall health, happiness and a sense of personal accomplishment. However, surfing also provides physical exercise while giving patients the benefits of hydrotherapy. Because of surfing’s combination of advantages, many children and adults now don’t simply live to surf: they surf to live.

1. Polytrauma

Many wounded U.S. service veterans face harsh realities. After sustaining life-threatening injuries and upon returning home, they must begin rehabilitation. Often, veterans face what is known as “polytrauma,” or suffering from multiple physical and mental impairments from combat wounds. These injuries often affect multiple organ systems in the body and, in addition, the experience in combat can cause anxiety, depression and psychosocial impairment.

Most doctors prescribe multiple pain meds including morphine and oxycodone, but even this isn’t enough to resolve all the pain, particularly the “phantom pain” experienced by amputees. Surfing, however, has proved more effective than almost any medication, especially for amputees. It provides a bundle of benefits, including balance and strength training, hydrotherapy and mental therapy.

In 2007, the Naval Medical Center San Diego began “Surf Clinic,” its surf therapy program in Del Mar, California. With the help of volunteers, the therapeutic surf clinic takes about 30 injured service members surfing every Thursday. The clinic has been wildly successful, particularly for those with bilateral transfemoral amputations. The balance training offered to those without legs traditionally involves a balance platform. While this training helps initially, patients often find its benefits plateau as they master the machine. Surfing provides an ever-changing balance platform that allows riders with prosthetic legs to continue to challenge and push themselves during every surf session.

The surf clinic also offers a place for mentorship between experienced veteran surfers and newcomers. These relationships can be meaningful and immensely helpful for service members adapting to a different body. Furthermore, time in the water is an escape from the problems on land. It is freedom.

Check out this video of the Surf Clinic in action.

2. Cystic Fibrosis

Kalani Robb teaches, through the Mauli Ola Foundation, a young boy afflicted by cystic fibrosis how to surf. Image: screenshot, Mauli Ola Foundation

Kalani Robb teaches, through the Mauli Ola Foundation, a young boy afflicted by cystic fibrosis how to surf. Image: screenshot, Mauli Ola Foundation

Cystic Fibrosis is a genetic disorder that heavily effects the respiratory and digestive system. Those born with Cystic Fibrosis produce extremely thick mucus in their lungs. The mucus causes drastic coughing and difficulty breathing, and it can clog the lungs and cause life-threatening infections. People diagnosed with cystic fibrosis face frequent hospitalization due to these lung problems.

Researchers in Australia found that the lungs of surfers with cystic fibrosis were much healthier than the lungs of patients who did not surf. They discovered that the saltwater mist of the ocean helps rehydrate airway surfaces, which in turn lubricates the lungs. This makes it much easier for those dealing with cystic fibrosis to clear their air passages and break up mucus. In observing the relationship between surfing and healthy lungs, researchers developed a hypertonic saline solution that seeks to provide the benefits of surfing to those who don’t have access to the ocean. Researchers have found that patients who either surf or receive saline solution treatment have half as many lung exacerbations as those patients who do not.

However, surfing offers the unique benefit of combining saline mist and physical exercise into one natural treatment. Combining the two together most efficiently breaks up mucus in the lungs. In 2007, the Maui Ola Foundation was started by a group of surfers hoping to touch the lives of children living with cystic fibrosis. The organization plans Surf Experience Days where volunteers teach affected children how to surf. The foundation hopes that by teaching and promoting surfing as a treatment for cystic fibrosis, more kids can enjoy “a healthier and more fulfilling life filled with fun activities.”

For more on the Maui Ola Foundation visit http://mauliola.org/

3. Autism

Surfers healing Photo: screenshot, Surfers Healing

Surfers healing during a SH surf camp. Photo: screenshot, Surfers Healing

Autism is a genetically inherited condition that has no known cause or cure. While difficult to understand and varying in degrees of severity, according to www.autismspeaks.org, autism is the fastest growing developmental disability in the United States, and it affects about 1 in 88 children. Children affected by autism frequently experience sensory overload as well as obsessive-compulsive routines that are difficult to break.

Izzy Paskowitz, son of legendary vagabond surfer and doctor Doc Paskowitz, was one of the first to explore surfing as a treatment for autism. When his son, Isaiah, was diagnosed with autism at age two, Izzy and his wife Danielle spent years seeking effective treatment. However, they discovered nothing worked as well as something that was already an integral part of their family: the ocean. Surfing provided Isaiah relief from his symptoms that no medicine or therapy could offer. Time in the water forced him to abandon OCD routines, and the ocean offered a calming remedy from sensory overload. The couple soon started a non-profit organization, Surfers Healing, to provide surf camps for other autistic children.

Operating since 2000, Surfers Healing puts on day camps across the country, and it gives over 3,000 kids a year the opportunity to get in the water and learn to surf. These camps offer children the relief and freedom from the stress they face on land.

For more information about autism, surfing, and Surfers Healing visit http://www.surfershealing.org/

4. Depression and Mood

Kassia Meador, making the fans happy. Photo: ASP

Kassia Meador, making the fans happy. Photo: ASP

This may not come as a surprise to anyone who surfs, but scientists in the UK are researching links between surfing and mood. In October of 2010, Britain’s National Health Services (NHS) operated a pilot program in Cornwall. The program observed 22 participants dealing with mental issues from schizophrenia to psychosis from ages 12 to 23. Participants spent six weeks on the coast learning how to surf under the tutelage of coaches. In recording the moods of participants, researchers found that at participants decreased in negative feelings and an increase of positive ones just in the time of 30 minutes of riding waves.

Similarly, doctoral student from the University of Iowa, Ryan Pittsinger, studied the link between surfing and mental health, but he also compared the effects of surfing with other sports. While it is well known that any kind of athletic activity causes the release of endorphins, which cause positive emotions, surfing, more than any other activity, causes feelings of tranquility and serenity. It leaves participants with a sense of accomplishment and a boosted self-esteem. These lasting effects also make surfing helpful in overcoming drug addiction. Many rehab centers, particularly in California, have integrated surfing into their programs with great success.

For more information about depression surf therapy, check this out.

5. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

The United States Marine Corp has already incorporated surf therapy into effective treatment of PTSD. The Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation brings both therapists and surf instructors to Camp Pendleton military base in California for 2-3 week cycles. While the PTSD treatment protocol involves other stress reducing activities, surf therapy provides fun and camaraderie for all the participants.

Experts differ on what they believe the most significant benefit of surf therapy for PTSD. Occupational therapist, Carly Rogers, who developed the Jimmy Miller program, based it around Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow theory.” The theory asserts that once a person can get “in the zone,” a positive, focused state of being, for one activity, a person can feel fulfilled and happy. Surfing allows those struggling with PTSD to get in their zone, and this can flow into all areas of their life. Others argue that the body movement spurred by surfing causes a shift in the metabolic processes of the brain. This changes brain chemistry, translating into healing and relief from PTSD. Another answer could be that surfing is so physically taxing it allows those with PTSD to sleep soundly, and the focus required from surfing distracts their thoughts from disturbing memories. Regardless of the cause, the US Marine Corp in conjunction with the Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation has had great success with surf therapy.

Check out the Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation here.

Photo: CI Surfboards

Photo: CI Surfboards

Honorable Mention: Surfing for paraplegics and quadriplegics through the Life Rolls On Foundation. Surfer Jesse Billauer started the foundation in 2002 after he sustained a life-altering spinal cord injury. The organization helps those suffering from spinal cord injuries get back into surfing again. While surfing does not provide medical treatment for their injuries, it’s a great organization that inspires those suffering from paraplegia and quadriplegia to continue to do what they love.

For more information visit: www.liferollson.org



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