What are the Long-Term Effects of Decompression Sickness?
One of the main risks associated with scuba diving is decompression sickness. It occurs due to the buildup of compressed gases in the body and is characterized by joint pains. However, some divers are more seriously affected by it may suffer more harmful effects.
- 1 How Do You Get Decompression Sickness?
- 2 How Do You Treat the Bends?
- 3 Do the Effects of Decompression Illness (DCI) Go Away by Themselves?
- 4 Can Decompression Illness Cause Brain Damage?
- 5 Can You Die from the Bends?
- 6 Prevention is Better than Cure
We’ll walk you through the basics of decompression sickness and what major problems it is likely to cause.
How Do You Get Decompression Sickness?
When you scuba dive, you take in compressed nitrogen and oxygen through your scuba tank. The body uses up the oxygen, but the nitrogen dissolves into the bloodstream. As you go deeper in the water, the water pressure increases as does your consumption of compressed air. When you start to ascend, water pressure starts to decrease and this gas starts to escape the body. If you ascend too quickly without making the necessary decompression stops, the nitrogen doesn’t escape fast enough and manifests itself in the form of gas bubbles inside the body.
The severity of the side effects varies based on the diver’s health, fitness and amount of compressed nitrogen consumed.
How Do You Treat the Bends?
Classical bends manifest themselves in the form of joint pains. When the number of bubbles is very high, the spinal cord and brain may also get affected. Numbness, paralysis and other cerebral disorders are likely to occur. Large numbers of gas bubbles may enter the bloodstream, cause lung congestion and circulatory shock.
Symptoms of the Bends
- Excessive fatigue
- Joint pains
- Dizziness, vertigo
- Buzzing sounds in the ear
- Numbness and paralysis
- Running out of breath.
Signs of the Bends
- Skin rashes
- Muscle weakness
- Urinating problems
- Personality distortion
- Coughing up blood
- Losing consciousness.
These symptoms may occur either during the dive or 15-20 minutes after the dive.
Frequently, these symptoms may be confused for something else such as overexertion. This is why decompression sickness may go unnoticed until the symptoms become very severe. In some cases, it may go away on its own, but in others, it will become worse.
It’s vital to seek treatment since if DCS goes untreated, it may lead to permanent disorders such as bladder problems, muscular weakness, etc. untreated joint pains can permanently make your bones brittle and weak.
Treatment for DCS involves maintaining normal blood pressure and providing the patient with plenty of oxygen. Fluids are also provided and it is preferable for the patient to lie side down.
Do the Effects of Decompression Illness (DCI) Go Away by Themselves?
Decompression Illness is a combination of DCS and AGE (Arterial Gas Embolism). AGE is characterized by the expansion of gas in the lungs and may cause your lungs to rupture. Decompression illness does not disappear on its own (unlike a slight case of the bends) and can cause permanent damage to a diver if left untreated.
Treating Decompression Illness
DCI is treated through recompression. The diver must be stabilized before they can be transferred to a recompression chamber.
Providing oxygen immediately will reduce the pain and the symptoms, but the treatment doesn’t stop there.
Can You Treat DCI by Yourself?
Even after the initial oxygen supply and disappearance of some symptoms, problems may resurface sometime later. This is why it’s essential to be treated by a professional. Treatment involves compression at a depth of around 60 feet and breathing in plenty of oxygen.
Treatment should not be delayed. If 24 hours or more have passed, the treatment may prove to be ineffective. Even if the treatment is a success, there might be residual effects such as soreness in the joint area. For more severe cases, symptoms such as neurological dysfunction may still be present after treatment. This can be treated with physical therapy. The plus side is that if treated on time, most patients recover completely.
DCI may be of different types. Sometimes, the symptoms may be immediate and severe, other times they may occur a few hours or in some cases, even a few days after the dive. For those with immediate symptoms, treatment is also immediate. For those who show delayed symptoms, professionals first obtain the diver’s health and dive history before providing treatment.
Can Decompression Illness Cause Brain Damage?
If left untreated, DCI can cause permanent neurological dysfunction. This may be the result of failed treatment, severe DCI or being diagnosed by DCI too often.
Can You Die from the Bends?
Although you can’t exactly die from the bends, it can cause lifelong physical and mental disabilities including: distorted neurological function, soreness in joints and paralysis.
Divers who have suffered from the bends can’t dive until their physician provides approval for it and they’re completely free of any symptoms. For divers who repeatedly suffer from DCI, it is advised that they do not dive at all.
Prevention is Better than Cure
It is important for divers to be more cautious rather than be risky and end up with DCS or DCI. Divers need to keep an eye on their dive computer (or dive tables) and make the necessary decompression stops as they ascend to avoid the excessive build-up of compressed gases in their body. For divers with pre-existing health conditions, it is recommended that they do not deep dive.
If an emergency occurs where a diver’s computer malfunctions or their tables are out of order, it is better to seek immediate help when they resurface, even if there aren’t any symptoms of DCS just yet.