“Even though I sliced my foot on the fin of the board and had to have stitches on my first time out surfing, I’ve been hooked ever since,” reminisces Mark Yamanaka, MD, a board-certified pulmonologist and critical care medicine specialist, who is the medical director of the Intensive Care Unit at Tri-City Medical Center (TCMC). “A high school friend wanted to learn how to surf and asked me to go with him because he was afraid of getting hurt – how ironic is that!”
Throughout his career of 30+ years, Dr. Yamanaka, as well as other doctors at TCMC, have treated surfers – both men and women – with a wide range of injuries, infections, ailments and diseases. “Some of the most common injuries are within the neck, shoulders and back – particularly the lower back, hips and legs. These are more often related to wear and tear on the ligaments and tendons, than broken bones or dislocations. Lacerations, cuts and scrapes are also common. All of these types of injuries usually occur when a person hits a surfboard, like I did, or rocks or reef.”
Although surfers may worry about shark attacks, they are extremely rare. Painful stings from jellyfish, stingrays and other types of marine creatures are more frequent occurrences and can lead to infections, which should be treated quickly. Dr. Yamanaka recommends that anyone who spends time in the ocean locally, nationally or while traveling abroad, should get Hepatitis A and B vaccinations, as well as those required by the foreign country. “Some of the beaches and waters are not as clean as they should be causing surfers to be exposed to viruses, bacteria and parasites that may cause disease or stomach upset, called gastroenteritis.”
Other ailments known to surfers affect their eyes, ears, nose and skin. Surfer’s eye (pterygium) is a growth that can spread to the cornea and is caused by long-term exposure to wind, UV light and bacteria in ocean water. Pink eye (conjunctivitis) occurs when the transparent membrane inside of the eyelid becomes inflamed and red; it is made worse by viruses and bacteria in the water. Surfer’s ear (external auditory exostoses) is a slowly progressive disease involving bone growth around the ear canal due to irritation and chronic exposure to cold water. An ear infection (otitis externa) can result if water and debris are trapped behind the growth.
“This could be prevented by wearing a hat or earplugs, but most surfers won’t do that,” said Dr. Yamanaka. “As a pulmonologist, I also see recurrent sinus infections and congestion in surfers, which can lead to a chronic cough.”
Too much exposure to salt water and its parasites or the rubbing of a wetsuit against the skin may cause an irritating surf rash, which is why many surfers wear a rashguard under their wetsuit. Since it is made of material that blocks UV rays, it can also help to prevent sunburn.
“Often these types of health issues can be prevented by using the right gear, knowing the limits of your experience and observing your surroundings,” added Dr. Yamanaka. “But sometimes, surfers can end up in the emergency room, especially those from out-of-town or new to the sport, after experiencing a near drowning because they were unfamiliar with riptides and then panic. Any surfer can have an emergent event, such as a heart attack or stroke while in the water or be overcome by the extreme heat.”
“The good news is, regardless if it is a big or small problem, or acute or chronic, many of the doctors, nurses and staff at Tri-City can relate because they are surfers too,” said Dr. Yamanaka. “Whether you need an Pulmonary/Critical Care doctor like me, or an orthopedist, family practice, dermatologist or ENT, we’ve got you covered. We live by the coast too and know the unique health conditions that may occur from spending so much time in the ocean doing the sport that we love.”
Dr. Yamanaka continued, “We also know the importance of maintaining good physical and mental health and strive to impart that to our patients. Eating a healthy diet, exercising and stretching, and getting proper sleep helps us to be physically strong. But I think most of us would agree that we surf because it is a way to relax and decompress.”
“When I’m out in the ocean, I tend to ignore everything behind me and face the horizon to look for the surf coming in. The only time I look back at the shore is when I’m checking my landmarks. On a nice day, you have the sky, the surf and maybe a dolphin or two popping around. The other surfers are mellow and out there for the same reason – to rejuvenate. ”
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