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Myth-Busting the Bends

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Decompression Chamber
Decompression Chamber

Decompression sickness (DCS) isn’t the most straightforward topic: It has lots of associated acronyms, it shares symptoms with many other conditions, and even though almost all divers take steps to prevent it, some still get it. To minimize the likelihood of you or a buddy suffering from DCS, you need to actively avoid it every time you dive. You also need to be able to recognize it, respond to it and seek proper treatment if it occurs despite your best efforts. All certified divers have learned about DCS, but once training is over questions come to mind, lines blur and myths about DCS arise.

By Caitlyn Ruskell, DAN Content Writer/Editor

At DAN it’s our mission to continually educate divers about how best to avoid DCS. Sometimes education is just a matter of breaking things down for review and busting some myths.

DCS occurs when bubbles of inert gas (usually nitrogen in recreational diving) form within the body and manifest in tissues, the bloodstream or any other part of the body where bubbles aren’t welcome. Bubbles can cause dizziness, fatigue, numbness, tingling, joint pain, shortness of breath, paralysis, muscle weakness, a rash, difficulty urinating, confusion and even loss of consciousness. DCS can be life threatening, so if you suspect you or your buddy has DCS after a dive, summon emergency medical services, administer first aid and emergency oxygen, then call the DAN Emergency Hotline at +1 (919) 684-9111. Even if you are not a DAN member the DAN medic will provide guidance and help you get the care you need. Following a DAN medic’s guidance will also help keep you from being led astray by any of the myths surrounding DCS and its treatment.

In most cases symptoms of DCS arise within 12 hours of diving, but contributing factors such as altitude exposure while flying can cause symptoms to arise a little later. Typically, the more time it takes for symptoms to appear, the more benign a case of DCS is. Far too often DAN medics handle cases in which divers believe they are experiencing DCS weeks or even months after their last dive. If you experience what you believe to be symptoms of DCS any more than three or four days after a dive, you can feel confident the underlying condition is not DCS. Still, consult a physician.

Another misconception that can prove extremely detrimental is that divers involved in an accident should be taken straight to a hyperbaric chamber for treatment. This is incorrect and could even prove deadly. Any person with suspected DCS should be taken straight to a hospital, clinic or other emergency medical facility for immediate evaluation. That way the injured diver can be stabilized, any life-threatening injuries can be treated, and a physician can refer them to a hyperbaric treatment facility that treats divers. While some hyperbaric chamber facilities treat divers, many do not, and those that do may not have a physician on staff to evaluate an injured diver or will require referral by an emergency physician before administering treatment. To avoid any delay in treatment after a diving accident, call EMS first, then call DAN and let the experts point you in the right direction.

In addition to misconceptions about seeking treatment for DCS, there are also myths out there about its recurrence. One question that DAN medical staff are asked frequently is, “I’ve had the bends before; does that make me more susceptible to getting them again?” The short answer to this question is, “not necessarily.” Assuming complete resolution of previous DCS and no preexisting anatomical or physiological susceptibility, there is no hard evidence that suggests you will be more susceptible to DCS in the future. Factors such as having a PFO or diving aggressively do need careful consideration.  Making conservative changes to the way you dive may reduce the risk of getting into trouble again.

Listen to your body: If you do not feel well, do not dive. There is no shame in calling off a dive and deciding to sit one out might just save your life. If you feel ready to dive, make sure you dive a conservative profile, stay within your limits, do not overexert yourself, make a safety stop and ascend slowly. Following these tips can improve your odds of avoiding DCS, but accidents can still happen. In fact, most cases of DCS occur within recreational limits. At least now you can avoid the pitfalls of some common misconceptions and know the basics in recognizing and responding to DCS. Just don’t forget to call DAN if you need us.

For more information about decompression sickness and Divers Alert Network, visit www.DAN.org.