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March 2007 Vol. 33, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Is Diving Off Limits for Pregnant Women?

from the March, 2007 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

That question is still being debated, because no research on the effects of diving on pregnant women and fetuses has been published for the past 15 years. The biggest concern is about the fetus’ susceptibility to decompression sickness; a secondary issue is the possibility that seawater may get into the womb, increasing the chances of infection or premature labor. But because the majority of research and recommendations of safe diving is based on the physiology of fit, young males, it is not easy for female divers—or their doctors— to determine the risks of diving while pregnant.

Four hyperbaric medicine researchers from Plymouth, England, and Houston, Texas, decided to update the research on this issue. Their study, “Scuba Diving and Pregnancy: Can We Determine Safe Limits?” appeared in a recent issue of The Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, scrutinizing the largest number of diving- while-pregnant episodes to date. Their findings? Nothing groundbreaking.

They evaluated data from two field studies of British female divers. Together, the studies showed 129 women had dived while pregnant, reporting 1,465 dives during 157 pregnancies, with the average age of the first dive during pregnancy being 34. Over half their dives took place in less than 45 feet, the deepest being 195 feet (done twice by one woman in her first trimester, who reported 92 dives overall in that pregnancy). Another woman dived while eight months pregnant.

One-quarter of the women had failed pregnancies, but the researchers found some of them had also engaged in other risky sports, such as skydiving and horse riding, and some had indulged in recreational drug use and alcohol during pregnancy. The rest of the women reported an 80 percent success rate for problem- free births.

The majority of women stopped diving in their first trimester – 65 percent in the first study and 90 percent in the second. This suggests that women are heeding the “do not dive while pregnant” recommendation by dive training organizations. But overall, the researchers said, studies to date fail to show how diving can affect the unborn child. They also stated that the women they studied did not conduct enough dives per pregnancy to determine any effects that diving may have on fetuses.

“This does not imply that diving is safe while pregnant, but neither is it possible to recommend or establish safe limits within which to dive,” the study concluded. “However…data emphasizes that women who have dived while pregnant need not be encouraged to terminate their pregnancy.”

From the study “Scuba Diving and Pregnancy: Can We Determine Safe Limits?”, published in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in August 2006.

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