What is decompression sickness in relationship to scuba diving?

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Shirley A. Jones, RN
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)
One of the most serious causes of scuba diving injuries is decompression sickness (often called "the bends").

Decompression sickness is caused by the formation of nitrogen gas bubbles inside blood vessels and tissues. Excess nitrogen accumulates in the body when a diver breathes at a depth greater than 33 feet (10 m). Decompression sickness occurs when ascent is too rapid to allow the release of this excess nitrogen. Divers notice symptoms within minutes or hours after surfacing.  

Signs and symptoms: Fatigue and musculoskeletal pain, particularly around joints such as the shoulders or elbows. Pain may be a dull ache but may also be sharp or throbbing. More severe cases may lead to unconsciousness, low blood pressure, and a fast heart rate. 

Treatment: Transport the person for recompression treatment in a hyperbaric (oxygen) chamber. If an aircraft is used, ideally the cabin should be pressurized to sea level. If the patient is flown out by helicopter (unpressurized), the pilot should try to stay below 1000 ft (330 m) above sea level. Keep the person facing up, and have a medical team administer oxygen and other necessary interventions.

Help with dive-related incidents is available 24 hours a day. Call the Divers Alert Network at Duke University (in the United States) at 919-684-8111.
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First Aid, Survival, and CPR: Home and Field Pocket Guide

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.