I’ve had Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) for about six years. This is a disease that, in short, attempts to render you disabled, fatigued and in pain. I’ve posted about my experience with RA in the past, and I continue to receive questions about scuba diving and RA. Is it even possible? Will it make the RA worse? What can I do to make diving easier?
I am proof that for many of us with RA, diving is both possible and enjoyable. It shouldn’t make your RA worse, and in fact, I usually find that it often makes me feel better (as long as I don’t overdo it). Now for a disclaimer – I am not a doctor, nor do I work in the medical field. The things that work for me, may not work for you. If you are in an active RA flare, it’s best to rest until the flare is under control. If your RA affects your lungs or other vital organs, please talk to your rheumatologist or a dive medicine specialist before diving.
Ten Tips for Diving with Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Try to develop a regular practice of stretching and strength training. Make sure that you are in good physical shape before diving. Yoga is amazing for strength and flexibility, and it shouldn’t put undue stress on your fragile joints.
- If RA affects your back or neck (mine does), ask for a smaller volume air tank. The standard size tank used by most resorts and dive shops is 80 volume, but many often have smaller tanks of 63 or even 50 volume. Contact your dive shop in advance to ask about a smaller tank. One caveat, if you are doing a deeper dive or a drift dive, and you are unsure about your air consumption rate, it may be disadvantageous to use a smaller volume tank as you may find yourself low on air well before you want to end the dive. In Bonaire, we do mostly shore diving, and I almost always use a 50 volume tank. I find that it really eases the stress on my bank and neck.
- If donning your BCD + tank on land is too stressful on your back and joints, consider asking for assistance in donning it in-water. I see this done fairly often on Bonaire, and many people with back problems find that this is a great solution.
- Many of us with RA also have Raynaud’s disease, which is a condition in which the extremities become cold, numb and painful in response to cold temperatures. Diving with Raynaud’s can be extremely uncomfortable. If permitted, consider wearing gloves during your dive. Gloves are not permitted while diving in Bonaire, but special permits are available with a medical note.
- Whether or not you have Raynaud’s, it’s very important for those with RA to stay warm while diving. Water removes heat from your body at a rate of 25 times faster than air! About two years ago, I started wearing a hood while diving, and it has made all of the difference in the world in my comfort level. I’ve also found that wearing a hood tends to help the Raynaud’s symptoms. In Bonaire, I often see tourists diving in swim shorts, bathing suits or just a rashguard shirt and shorts. I can’t tell you how crazy this make me! (I always want to tell them that it’s jellyfish spawning time). Almost all of the experienced divers I know dive with a hood or head cover and a good quality full wetsuit.
- For many of us, putting on a wetsuit is a challenging endeavor. The pulling, crouching and tugging is annoying, and for those of us with RA it can be painful. My solution is a front zip shortie (long-sleeve) with a full dive skin underneath. This configuration is so easy to put on, and it keeps me warm in Bonaire’s tropical waters.
- Most of us learn to flutter kick to propel ourselves underwater. If you find that your knees or hips become overly fatigued while kicking, change or alternate your kick style. I often use a frog kick, which tends to be a bit easier on the knees. And as a bonus, you can more easily avoid kicking up sand with this kick.
- Many serious dive trips include the option of doing 4-5 dives per day, and most divers want to see and do as much as possible. Inflammation from RA tends to cause fatigue, and the exertion from diving can multiply this effect. If you become tired after a dive, rest. There is no shame in sitting out a dive, two dives or even a day of diving. Would you rather be in a flare because you didn’t rest? Give yourself a break when you need it, and don’t let others pressure you into “just one more dive” when you are exhausted.
- Know your dive plan ahead of time, and don’t be afraid to opt out if it sounds too challenging. Contact your dive operator ahead of a planned dive to ask about the dive plan and conditions. Is there a lot of swimming and strong currents? Just say no if the dive exceeds your physical limits.
- Do you find that your weight belt sits uncomfortably on your hips or SI joints? If so, explore other options. I tend to have a lot of pain in my SI joints, and I can’t have weights sitting anywhere near that area. My solution is to use a combo of a weight belt and integrated weights. Now, I’m not saying that this is a typical setup, but it works for me. A good dive instructor or divemaster should be able to help you find a weight solution that works well for you.
Are you a diver with RA? Do you have any tips for making diving easier or more enjoyable?