Beginner Surfer Left Paralysed after Suffering Rare Surfer's Myelopathy

Matt Rode

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Updated 1176d ago

A 20-year-old beginner surfer has been left paralysed after suffering an extremely rare spinal cord injury caused by hyperextension from paddling.

Mycah Muranka, then 19, hadn't surfed in around a year when he paddled out with his aunt, Shauna Alip, at Marineland on Oahu's south shore.

But Mycah was rushed to Queen's Medical Center in Honolulu shortly after getting in the water, with severe back pain and pins and needles in his legs. After undergoing medical examinations, Mycah was diagnosed with surfer's myelopathy, a rare condition in beginner surfers who may not be used to the repetitive strain of arching their back while paddling. Tragically, the condition means that Mycah may not be able to walk again.

Mycah recovering in hospital.

Mycah recovering in hospital.

Shauna said: ''He spent the next couple of days on his back with severe pain. At this point the prognosis did not look good.  He was on pain medication, receiving intravenous fluids and he could not feel or move his legs.''

Although Mycah has medical insurance, the bills are still racking up. His family have launched a gofundme page to help cover some of the expenses needed for Mycah's ongoing treatment. More than $14,000 has been donated already.

Sergio Florian, doctor of physical therapy and owner of Wellness PT, an avid surfer based on Oahu’s North Shore, is currently treating Mycah.

While the general medical approach in a case such as Mycah’s is to give up on the legs and instead focus on strengthening the upper body for adaptive movement, Wellness PT was willing to take on the difficult job of rehabilitating Mycah’s legs. After five months of rigorous physical therapy, Florian has been able to assist his patient in recovering a small amount of mobility, which has his family hopeful. However, there is still a long way to go before he has full strength and movement. ''This was the first time Mycah had really smiled in a really, really, really long time,'' said Shauna.

Sergio assisting Mycah as part of his therapy.

Sergio assisting Mycah as part of his therapy.

“The best way to avoid surfer’s myelopathy—for all surfers, but especially beginners—is to warm up properly before your session,” says Florian. “Go through the full range of spine flexion and extension movements, such as yoga poses like cobra and plow. Beginners should also make sure they have adequate strength in order to arch and extend their backs while lying on boards.

''They can test this on shore by practicing paddling on the beach and raising their heads to see if they have the strength to hyperflex the spine. Finally, limit the length of your sessions, particularly if you are a beginner. Try to sit on your board while waiting for waves, rather than lying. And if you begin to feel undue stress or pain in the lower back, it may be time to call it a day.”

Most people haven't heard of this malady. It’s extremely rare, with only a couple dozen confirmed cases, so it’s not like it gets mentioned in monthly surf magazines But then again, it does name surfers specifically in its title, so it’s probably better to be informed than not.

Surfer’s myelopathy is a form of nontraumatic spinal cord injury caused by hyperextension of the back and resulting in paraplegia. It typically occurs with beginner surfers who are not used to arching their backs while paddling, although it can also afflict beginning yoga and pilates practitioners. In surfers, the malady seems to occur most frequently with people traveling and taking surf lessons while on vacation, likely due to an increased risk introduced by long air travel before the surfing experience and onset of injury.

The incident happened in small surf off the south shore of Oahu, which is also home to Waikiki.

The incident happened in small surf off the south shore of Oahu, which is also home to Waikiki.

The mechanism of the injury is actually quite obvious, and it’s surprising that it doesn’t happen more frequently. Hyperextension of the untrained back results in a cutting off of the blood flow to the spine, depriving the spinal cord of oxygen. This causes a “stroke” of the spinal cord, typically resulting in some level of paralysis. Although most patients with surfer’s myelopathy will make a full recovery, some cases see permanent paralysis.

The chances of getting surfer’s myelopathy are about as small as the chances of getting attacked by a shark, so it probably isn’t something you need to stay awake at night worrying about. That being said, you likely wouldn’t surf in a known shark breeding ground with an open wound, and you would be wise to take equal precautions when it comes to spinal injuries, particularly if you are just starting out. A little prevention can go a long way.