Decompression Illness


Decompression illness affects divers who experience a severe change in the water pressure around them. It can also happen when a diver does not carry out decompression stops after a long or deep dive.  Here, the body is not given enough time to acclimatise to the new pressures. When this happens, inert gases dissolve into body liquids and tissues because gases were being inhaled at higher pressures. The main inert gas that people breathe is nitrogen. Upon return to lower pressures, gas bubbles form within the blood.

Signs and Symptoms


Bubbles can be found mostly in large joints of the body. These include the elbows, shoulders, hip, wrists, knees and ankles. The pain in these areas can range from mild to unbearable and any movement in these joints can bring about a lot of discomfort.


Gas bubbles can be traced to the brains, spinal chord and peripheral nerves. For the brains, confusion or memory loss, headaches, spots in visual field, tunnel vision, double vision or blurry vision are just some of these signs. There may also be extreme fatigue, seizures, dizziness, nausea, vomiting and even unconsciousness.

When gas bubbles form in the spinal chord, this will cause abdominal sensations such as burning, stinging and tingling around the lower chest and back. Symptoms may begin from the feet up and this brings about a high probability of paralysis to the diver.

If gas bubbles form in the peripheral nerves, this can bring about conditions known as urinary incontinence and fecal incontinence. This is when the human body is not able to control the leakage of urine and excretion. There is a loss of regular control of the bowels. Apart from these, there may also be abnormal sensations such as numbness, burning, stinging and tingling.

Lungs and Skin

If gas bubbles are found in the lungs, the diver will experience chest pains and breathing will bring about a lot of discomfort. There is also a constant dry cough and shortness of breath.

Itching and swelling of the skin  around the ears, face, neck, arms and upper torso are an indication of gas bubbles in the body.

Avoidance and Treatment

To reduce the risks of accidents and injuries such as decompression illness, divers should avoid long and deep dives and should ascend slowly. Also, different scuba diving equipment has been manufactured to assist divers. For instance, decompression tables and dive computers help the diver choose depth and duration of decompression stops.

The standard treatment for decompression illness is by way of recompression. This is carried out through a recompression chamber that compensates for the decompression stops that divers are supposed to go through underwater, on the surface.

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