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Decompression Sickness

Diving has become a popular activity in several countries over the last two decades. Of course, it seems fascinating, but it not without risks either. It has to be planned and responsibly carried out with all precautions of first aid taken into consideration. One of the greatest risks of diving is decompression sickness and ample measures need to be taken if a diver is affected by this condition.

Decompression Sickness – What it is

Decompression sickness, which is also commonly known as “the bends” is a condition that occurs due to the formation of Nitrogen bubbles in the body tissues and bloodstream. The formation of bubbles generally takes place when a diver moves upwards from the deep waters towards the surface much too steeply because of the lowering water pressure as he moves upwards. The condition shows up symptoms almost immediately after the dive and has the potential of causing the death of affected divers. If there is any suspect the dive needs to be stopped immediately and the affected should be catered with first aid and appropriate treatments need to be provided.

Image by: Marion Doss

Source  by : flickr

The Symptoms of Decompression Sickness

Since the bubble formation can occur in different body parts, the symptoms of this condition can be varied. However, the most common ones noticed in decompression sickness victims include

  • vertigo or headaches
  • unusual fatigue
  • joint pain
  • paralysis
  • weakness of the muscles of the hands and legs
  • tingling sensations
  • breathlessness
  • unconsciousness.

In most cases, the appearance of the symptoms is shortly after the completion of the dive. Every 50 out of 100 divers with this condition, exhibit symptoms within an hour of the dive while in 98 cases out of 100, the symptoms appear within a period of 24 hours after the dive. It is recommended that air travel should be avoided for at least 24 hours after a dive as it has a good chance of triggering the symptoms of decompression sickness.

The Causes of Decompression Sickness

The air that we breathe in has a 70% content of Nitrogen. When a dive is taken, there is an intake of large quantities of Nitrogen into the tissues. The reason behind this simply this that the air pressure under water increases with depth below the surface. So the amount of nitrogen that is dissolve in the bloodstream depends directly on the depth of the dive and also its duration. However, this high quantity of dissolved nitrogen does not cause an issue at that depth because of the increased air pressure.

Once the diver starts ascending towards the surface, there is a fall in air pressure surrounding him and as a result, the surplus nitrogen is released through the lungs during expiration. However, if the rate at which the diver ascends is greater than the body’s expiration rate, Nitrogen bubbles are formed in the tissues and the bloodstream.

Avoiding Decompression Sickness

In order to avoid the risk of developing this condition, the divers are advised to take the following measures

  • make safety stops once in every 5 meters of ascent
  • never exceed an ascent rate of 10 meters/ minute

This is especially for those divers who have stayed at great depths for longer durations. Of course, these steps do not promise to completely avoid the chances as there are other factors too that affect the risk of developing decompression sickness. These include the duration of the dive, lack of body fluids, cold currents, fat percentage in the diver’s body, age, sex and physical condition.

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Decompression chamber

Image by : wikipedia

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy

Image by : wikipedia

Preparing for Recompression

Image by : wikipedia

Image by Seegul

Source by : flickr

The Diagnosis of Decompression Sickness

If symptoms are noticed in a diver, immediate diagnosis is necessary to make sure whether it is decompression sickness that is affecting him.

  • The diving history which includes information regarding the dive duration, ascent rate, dive depth, etc can be helpful in recognizing whether the condition is decompression sickness.
  • A complete examination in which factors like coordination, balance, touch sensation, muscular strength and reflexes are tested to confirm the diagnosis.
  • Also, on the basis of the diagnosis, a decision is made whether the affected diver needs a recompression or hyberbaric chamber treatment.

Treatment of Decompression Sickness

There is no specific medicine that can be used to cure this condition. However, the different kind of treatment provided to recover a diver affected with decompression sickness at different points are as follows

Treatment provided at the diving station and in the ambulance

  • Plenty of fluid intake
  • 100% oxygen provided at a 10-15 liters/minute
  • Any chances of the diver catching a cold need to be avoided.
  • In case of unconsciousness, the diver needs to be provided with first aid.

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Treatment Provided at the Hospitals

  • Recompression in a hyperbaric or decompression chamber
  • The diver needs to be exposed to a pressure that is equivalent to the deep water pressure to facilitate the exhalation of the nitrogen bubbles
  • The diver’s touch sensitivity, balance and coordination and muscle strength need to be monitored every now and then to see if there is any improvement
  • Rest is advised after treatment in the decompression chamber and the period of rest is specific to each case.

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Anees is full time blogger, writer and consultant provides tips, guides and articles related to lifestyle, tech, social media and business!

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