DEFINITION--A painful, sometimes life-threatening condition of blood gases that
is caused by a sudden drop in environmental pressure.
BODY PARTS INVOLVED--Blood in all body parts.
SEX OR AGE MOST AFFECTED--Both sexes; all ages. Usually occurs in young males.
SIGNS & SYMPTOMS--
CAUSES--Formation of nitrogen bubbles in the blood. Nitrogen is a normal blood
component. If the pressure around the body drops rapidly--as in surfacing too quickly
while scuba diving or climbing too rapidly in a non-pressurized aircraft--the nitrogen
collects in bubbles in the blood vessels, blocking them and depriving the body of
essential blood nutrients.
RISK INCREASES WITH
- Commercial diving or recreational scuba diving. Repeated dives in one day increase the
- Some kinds of high-performance aircraft.
- Working in compression chambers; tunnel work (caisson disease).
HOW TO PREVENT
Obtain professional instruction before scuba diving. > Don't dive if you are not in
good general health. You are at risk if you are obese or have a medical history of:
Lung conditions, such as asthma. Spontaneous pneumothorax. Heart disease. Chronic
sinusitis. Emotional instability. Alcoholism.
- Allow for a slow, gradual change to normal air pressure in situations listed above. (The
U.S. Navy has tested and established guidelines.)
- Avoid air travel for 24 hours after diving.
What To Expect
- Your own observation of symptoms.
- Medical history and physical exam by a doctor.
- Laboratory blood studies, oxygen levels, EEG (See Glossary),
chest x-ray, CT scan (See Glossary).
APPROPRIATE HEALTH CARE
- Self-care is impossible for this condition. If you observe someone with symptoms of
decompression sickness, obtain emergency medical care immediately.
- Hospitalization in a decompression chamber to force nitrogen bubbles to dissolve into
- Treatment is best when it is accomplished early; however some patients may benefit even
at 6 to 9 days after the incident. Referral is critical even if symptoms resolve since 25%
of patients will relapse.
- Permanent brain damage.
- Permanent bone destruction caused by inadequate nourishment from the blood.
PROBABLE OUTCOME--Excellent for patients who receive early treatment; in others,
it depends on duration and severity of symptoms prior to treatment.
How To Treat
GENERAL MEASURES----Self-care is impossible for this condition. If you observe
someone with symptoms of decompression sickness, obtain emergency medical care
MEDICATION--Medicine usually is not necessary for this disorder. Don't take pain
relievers. These may further decrease normal breathing efficiency.
ACTIVITY--Resume your normal activities as soon as symptoms improve after
DIET--No special diet.
Call Your Doctor If
You develop any symptoms of decompression sickness within 24 hours after scuba diving
or rapid ascent without pressurization.