Surfing as safe as running, unless you're a competitor
Surfing is a relatively safe recreation – but injuries climb among people engaging in it as a competitive sport, specialists say.
Royal North Shore Hospital specialist Dr Simon Dimmick studied head and spinal injuries of surfers admitted to the hospital over the past two years.
The research, to be presented this week at a Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Radiology conference in Sydney, found head and neck damage accounts for about 25-37% of surfing injuries.
Dr Dimmick said more than 50% of all spinal injuries sustained by surfers affected the cervical spine.
Only 10% were thoracic spine fractures and 5% were fractures of the lumbar vertebrae.
About one quarter of spinal injuries involved bruising to the spinal cord, Dr Dimmick said.
Spinal injuries were mostly caused by contact with the sea floor, while head and facial injuries resulted from being hit with a surfboard, he said.
Two studies involving 28 patients each were carried out at the hospital, which is NSW's main treatment centre for spinal injuries.
Although significant injuries can occur from surfing, the sport is considered relatively safe.
The reported incidence of injury ranges from 2.2 to 3.5 injuries per 1,000 hours of surfing for recreational surfers but about 6.6 per 1,000 hours of competitive surfing.
That puts the risk of injury for recreational surfers on par with long-distance running, while competitive surfers face similar risks to snowboarders, Dr Dimmick said.
"Surfing is a safe sport, but we want to identify the injuries and then figure out how we can prevent them," Dr Dimmick said.
He said surfing injuries had changed over time as surfboard designs evolved, making them more manoeuvrable.
"The types of injuries we're expecting are slightly different for that reason, because of the different types of tricks and manoeuvres that you can do now that you couldn't 10 to 15 years ago," he said.
"Surfing is such an iconic pastime in Australia.
"Two million people surf and because it's so popular we do see a reasonable amount of injuries."
Dr Dimmick said the aim of the ongoing study was to identify the main injuries and look at ways to prevent them.
Royal North Shore, Mona Vale and Manly hospitals are continuing to record surfers' injuries to contribute to the research, which will start investigating risk factors such as surfing conditions, type of board and beach location.