A 36-year-old man was treated by paramedics after a diving mishap in Pt Lonsdale last week. It is believed that the diver 'swam down too fast' while scuba diving, and a short time later was suffering signs of decompression sickness, also known as 'the bends'. Here is some useful information on this common 'injury' suffered by scuba divers.
What is 'the bends'?
Decompression sickness (DCS; also known as divers' disease or the bends) describes a condition arising from dissolved gases coming out of solution into bubbles inside the body on depressurisation.
What are the symptoms of the bends?
While bubbles can form anywhere in the body, DCS is most frequently observed in the shoulders, elbows, knees, and ankles. Joint pain ("the bends") accounts for about 60% to 70% of all altitude DCS cases, with the shoulder being the most common site. Neurological symptoms are present in 10% to 15% of DCS cases with headache and visual disturbances the most common symptom. Skin manifestations are present in about 10% to 15% of cases. Pulmonary DCS ("the chokes") is very rare in divers and has been observed much less frequently in aviators since the introduction of oxygen pre-breathing protocols. The table below shows symptoms for different DCS types.
How can I help to prevent getting the bends?
The potential severity of the bends is such that much research has gone into preventing it, and underwater divers use dive tables or dive computers to set limits on their exposure to pressure and their ascent speed. Diving for too long, descending too quickly, or ascending too quickly without sufficient decompression stops to slowly reduce the excess pressure of inert gases dissolved in the body will increase the risk of the bends. Not flying straight after diving can also decrease the risk of getting the bends. Divers who ascend to altitude soon after a dive increase their risk of developing DCS even if the dive itself was within the dive table safe limits. Dive tables make provisions for post-dive time at surface level before flying to allow any residual excess nitrogen to outgas.
How is the bends treated?