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Diveheart Provides Multi-faceted Health Benefits through Dive Therapy

Aug 31, 2020 11:00AM ● By Martin Miron

Photo by DJ Wood

One in five people in the country have a disability. Volunteer-driven nonprofit Diveheart, based in Downers Grove, has been serving this population since 2001 with a very unique type of therapy in zero-gravity. They discovered that underwater scuba therapy in a pool, lake or ocean can give people with disabilities the freedom to move independently, even if they are severely disabled. The benefits of therapy in zero-gravity depend on the disability.

Researchers from Midwestern University collaborated with Diveheart to do the world’s first research on autism and scuba therapy. Individuals with autism spectrum disorder, for example, go through therapy on land using pressure vests, weighted blankets and sensory deprivation rooms. Diveheart has found that underwater, they gain the opportunity to avoid surface distractions and triggers that may cause them distress. Pressure also increases the deeper they go—from one atmosphere at the surface to two atmospheres at 33 feet below the surface. This increased ambient pressure seems to provide that soothing pressure sensation for individuals with autism, as well as helping them focus better.

Diveheart has hosted 10 international adaptive scuba symposiums since it was founded in 2001. In Cozumel, Mexico, top hyperbaric physician and researcher Jake Freiberger, from Duke University Undersea and Hyperbaric Medicine, presented with Dan Goodman, researcher and assistant professor at Northwestern University, who is also an attending physician at the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab, in Chicago.

Chronic pain relief is another benefit found in scuba therapy. In 2011, a Diveheart-trained team joined researchers from John Hopkins University in the Cayman Islands, where they conducted research involving 12 veterans with spinal cord injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They found that when submerged to 66 feet, or three atmospheres, underwater, there was an extra output of serotonin in the body that helped with pain management and anxiety. Eighty percent of the PTSD symptoms experienced by the subjects were alleviated during the dives.

Diveheart subjects with spinal cord injuries suffering from chronic pain asserted that by the second day of an adaptive dive trip their chronic pain disappeared, and if they dove deep enough, the pain did not reappear until two weeks after the trip. 

In addition to helping individuals with autism, PTSD and chronic pain, scuba therapy provides freedom of movement that participants say helps with their bladder integrity and circulation, as well as gastrointestinal benefits.

From the beginning, Diveheart’s mission has been to use zero-gravity and scuba therapy underwater to help build confidence, independence and self-esteem in individuals with any kind of disability. After establishing an adaptive scuba training program for scuba instructors, able-bodied divers and individuals with disabilities, Diveheart has become the leader in adaptive scuba training by inspiring, promoting and helping to facilitate adaptive scuba programs around the world.

Diveheart uses the cool factor and adventure paradigm that accompanies scuba diving to help individuals with disabilities find a new identity. In many instances, when they realize they can scuba dive, they no longer identify as a wheelchair user or someone with a disability, but as a scuba diver. Diveheart mom Denise Brown shares, “My son has a traumatic brain injury and has been diving with Diveheart for 12 years. His association with Diveheart has brought him joy, confidence and a great feeling of accomplishment. I have found that the volunteers are extremely well trained and really love what they do. I have seen them take a person who is scared and turn that fear into one great big smile. As a non-diving volunteer, that alone makes it all worthwhile.”

For Diveheart founder and president Jim Elliott, it’s not about scuba diving. “At Diveheart, we take the unrealized human potential that exists in individuals with disabilities and we help create a paradigm shift in that person so that they start to self-identify as a scuba diver and not someone with a disability,” he says. “Once Johnny in the wheelchair becomes Johnny the scuba diver, we point them towards endeavors like marine biology, oceanography and coral reef restoration, with the hope of inspiring them to become good stewards of the oceans and the planet.”

Diveheart continues to facilitate scuba therapy research with university medical centers around the country, as well as adaptive training programs around the world.

Diveheart is located in Downers Grove. For more information, visit Diveheart.org.