Waves Knock Swimmers into the ER

Traumatic injuries from ocean waves send many beachgoers to the ER

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Splashing around in shallow water at the beach may seem low risk, but getting knocked down by a crashing wave can be very dangerous. Awareness and caution may be the key to safety.

A recent study looked at beach-related injuries on the Delaware coastline.

The researchers found that most of the injuries were sprains and broken bones in adults whose backs were hit hard by ocean waves as they exited the water.

"Pay attention to surf conditions."

Paul Cowan, DO, Chief of Emergency Medicine at the Beebe Medical Center in Delaware, and Wendy Carey, PhD, coastal hazards specialist in the Sea Grant College Program at the University of Delaware, worked together to investigate beach injuries in the state of Delaware that resulted in trips to emergency departments.

For this study, the researcher identified 1,121 cases from Beebe Medical Center Emergency Departments for injuries due to ocean waves over the course of three summer seasons in the state of Delaware.

About one-third of the patients were over the age of 45, but the majority of patients were between the ages of 33 and 38.

The researchers looked at data from two state park beaches — Cape Henlopen and Indian River Inlet — and three beach areas along the southern coastline — Bethany, Dewey and Rehoboth.

Ocean wave injuries occurred in the surf zone, or the shallow areas of the water where the waves roll in from the sea and crash.

Recorded injuries were the result of people being hit hard, and often knocked down, by the waves. The injuries ranged from mild sprained ligaments and joints to strained muscles and broken bones in the limbs and spine, as well as bruised organs.

The researchers reported that roughly 35 percent of the injuries were arm and shoulder related. And roughly 5 percent of ocean wave injuries involved the neck and spinal cord.

The researchers also found that the most common ocean wave injuries were ankle and knee sprains, broken collarbones and dislocated shoulders.

Over the three-year period, there were three beach injury-related deaths.

By looking at cases over three seasons, the researchers were able to establish patterns of injury. During 21 percent of the days in question, there were no beach-related injuries. However, during 26 percent of the days, there were five or more beach-related injuries per day. On the busiest day overall, 25 beach-related injuries were treated.

Higher rates of beach-related injuries happened on days when waves averaged 1.5 feet in height between 12 pm and 4 pm on weekend days.

The researchers reported that, most of the time, people who were injured were caught off guard by a wave crashing into their backs as they were leaving the water.

"Beachgoers often underestimate the potential hazards a day at the beach may pose. This article details how common injuries occur and how often waves are the cause,” Chris Galloway, MD, an emergency medicine specialist, told dailyRx News.

"Adults are frequently injured, but children are usually the most seriously injured, attesting to the potentially overpowering force of waves and current," said Dr. Galloway, who was not involved in this study.  

"Pay attention to the lifeguards on duty and the current conditions of the surf so you or a loved doesn't end their day at the beach with a visit to the ER," Dr. Galloway added.

These research results were published on the Sea Grant Delaware website in June. This study is ongoing and has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

No outside funding sources were made public. No conflicts of interest were reported.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
June 10, 2013
Last Updated:
August 7, 2013