Decompression Sickness

What Is It?

Decompression sickness, also called generalized barotrauma or the bends, refers to injuries caused by a rapid decrease in the pressure that surrounds you, of either air or water. It occurs most commonly in scuba or deep-sea divers, although it also can occur during high-altitude or unpressurized air travel. However, decompression sickness is rare in pressurized aircraft, such as those used for commercial flights.

When you scuba dive with compressed air, you take in extra oxygen and nitrogen. Your body uses the oxygen, but the nitrogen is dissolved into your blood, where it remains during your dive. As you swim back toward the surface after a deep dive, the water pressure around you decreases. If this transition occurs too quickly, the nitrogen does not have time to clear from your blood. Instead, it separates out of your blood and forms bubbles in your tissues or blood. It is these nitrogen bubbles that cause decompression sickness. The condition is called the bends because joint pain, a common symptom, can double you over.

What happens inside your body during decompression sickness is similar to what happens when you open a carbonated drink. When you open the can or bottle, you decrease the pressure surrounding the beverage in the container, which causes the gas to come out of the liquid in the form of bubbles. If nitrogen bubbles form in your blood, they can damage blood vessels and block normal blood flow.

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