Decompression sickness, also known as the bends, is a term used in scuba diving to describe the sharp, painful feeling that occurs when one surfaces too quickly. Although it is not very common, it can potentially be fatal if severe enough. The symptoms for the bends are easily identified and are simple to treat if it is caught in the early stages. Decompression sickness can be prevented all together if proper safety precautions are taken.
If you pay attention in certification class and remember to follow the steps of surfacing from a dive, scuba diving can be a very safe and rewarding experience. The bends occur when nitrogen bubbles build up in the blood stream. Scuba tanks contain a mixture of approximately 79 percent nitrogen and 11 percent oxygen. Therefore, most of the air that is being breathed in is nitrogen. This is not necessarily the problem. As a scuba diver descends for a dive, the pressure around the body increases, this causes nitrogen to be absorbed into the body tissues.
Typically, the human body could absorb nitrogen until the body reaches a point of saturation, which is the point where the surrounding pressure equals the pressure of the body tissues. The problem arises during the ascent. As a diver ascends, the pressure needs to leave the body. In order for the nitrogen to be released slowly, occasional decompression stops should be made. Decompression sickness occurs when the diver ascends too fast and the nitrogen escapes too quickly, causing bubbles to form in the arterial side of the circulatory system.
The symptoms of decompression sickness are prominent. These symptoms include dizziness, confusion, trouble breathing, joint and limb pain, numbness, and even unconsciousness. These symptoms should not be ignored at any cost. Upon notice of any of the symptoms listed previously, the diver should be taken to a hospital for immediate medical attention. There are two different types of decompression sickness, type I and type II. Type I decompression sickness is identified by rashes on the skin and pains in the joints and limbs.
Type II decompression sickness is the most severe and can immediately be life threatening. It is classified as a type II when nitrogen bubbles form in the nervous system, the lungs, or the brain. However, both types of DCS should be treated with immediate attention to prevent further complications. Regardless of the stage of DCS, the treatment for either type is the same. The diver should be treated with 100 percent oxygen until hyperbaric oxygen therapy is available. In hyperbaric oxygen therapy, the diver affected by the bends is placed in a recompression chamber for an extended period of time.
This high-pressured camber delivers 100 percent oxygen and allows the body to release the bubbles in a safe and effective manner. While decompression sickness sounds scary, don’t let it discourage you from experiencing the beautiful, majestic mystery that 60 feet down under the ocean presents. If you follow the safety precautions taught in class, pay attention to your dive computer, and know your personal limits the likelihood of getting decompression sickness is slim to none.