Could Dolphins Ease Chronic Pain?

"I woke up in recovery and couldn't breathe," said Claudia Rose.

Rose, 43, recalled waking up in the hospital after an operation to remove her gallbladder in November 2004. The surgery left her with internal scar tissue that restricted her diaphragm and upper rib cage — and caused her chronic pain.

But Rose, a distance swimmer with miles of ocean races behind her, returned to the water after a few months to recuperate, and got some unexpected help for her pain — dolphins.

Rose saw a pod of dolphins on her first post-surgery swim. The second time, the pod surrounded her and she swam with them.

But Rose believes her dolphin encounters are more than playful.

"I think they can detect the pain or that something is wrong," Rose said.

Dolphins tend to approach Rose when she is in severe pain, she said, and after these swims, she feels no pain for 10-12 days.

"It works much better than any drug or injection," Rose said.

Paging Dr. Doolittle?

Numerous studies have suggested that interacting with animals is beneficial to humans. For example, research has shown that owning a pet can have health benefits including lowered blood pressure and cholesterol, as well as reduced stress.

And some animals, like dogs with the ability to predict seizures, can have a direct impact on saving human lives.

But could it be possible that simply being around dolphins eases chronic pain?

Though Rose's physician, Joe Shurman, chair of pain management at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, Calif., chose not to comment on the validity of this idea, he did say that spending time with the gentle sea mammals could have some psychological benefits.

"The way dolphins swim and how gentle they are, it's almost like a meditative-type experience," Shurman said.

But dolphin experts are skeptical about whether dolphins can actually detect pain. Joan Mehew, director of the Special Needs Program at the Dolphin Research Center in Grassy Key, Fla., suggested the dolphins might be attracted to a swimmer because he or she is in their territory. They may simply be curious, or perhaps they have learned the swimmer's routine, she added.

"There is no measurable evidence that explains why certain things happen," Mehew said, regarding Rose's experience with dolphins.

Instead, Mehew said dolphins can detect abnormalities in a body, such as pacemakers or the double heartbeat of a pregnant woman, by echolocation. They may then respond by altering their own behavior. For example, dolphins at her center often swim more slowly in the presence of cancer patients, Mehew said.

Dolphin Therapy

Rose believes the connection goes further than this, however. She said that marine mammals have always had an affinity for her.

"Seals rub up against me, sea lions follow me, dolphins surround me," she said.

Once, after swimming with a pod of dolphins, Rose turned to swim ashore and a dolphin whacked her with its tail. Stunned for a moment, Rose returned to the shore where a lifeguard came to see whether she was all right. He told Rose dolphins usually hit another dolphin on a head with their tails when they begin to stray from the pod.

"They must have thought, 'Stupid defective dolphin, you're going the wrong way!'" Rose said.

And though contact with dolphins is unlikely to directly bring about pain relief, few doctors would tell Rose to cease her activities.

Swimming and water therapy are "ideal exercises for people in chronic pain" because there is no pressure on the joints and muscles, Shurman said. For Rose, swimming helps pull the ribs up and away from the injured tissues, which relieves her pain, as do the endorphins she gets from exercising.

Additionally, whether or not the dolphins Rose swims with actually respond to her pain, animal therapy is a well-documented way to cope with chronic pain and other ailments such as phobias, depression, fatigue and stress.

Rose continues to combat chronic pain in a variety of ways, including some medications and physical therapy, but she finds swimming more eases the pain.

"There is a mental boost from having [dolphins] there," she said.