SCUBA Diving and Some Decompression Sickness Considerations

Carl Byington SCUBA Diving Leader
Carl Byington, Divemaster safely decompressing and returning to the surface.

SCUBA diving is an activity that allows the water adventurer to see our lakes, rivers, and oceans in whole new ways. It is important though to pursue and receive the proper training and certifications to SCUBA safely due to the pressure at depth and other hazards. Carl Byington is a PADI-certified Divemaster. He has experienced diving in the warm waters of the Caribbean to the cold waters around Rochester, NY and Ontario, Canada.

The “bends” is an informal term used to describe a number of decompression syndromes that typically impact individuals involved with underwater diving and high-altitude or aerospace exploration. Decompression sickness (DCS) occurs when gas bubbles, predominantly composed of Nitrogen (as it is the highest percentage gaseous element in regular air) are formed in the bloodstream and tissues as the stored gas is released too quickly from the body by decreasing ambient pressure and too fast pressure changes. The condition can be fatal if not addressed in a timely manner, making it important for SCUBA divers to have a thorough understanding of DCS symptoms.

The nervous and musculoskeletal systems are most affected by DCS, with common symptoms including pain around major joints (such as the shoulders and elbows) and general fatigue. Skin rashes and itchiness are also signs of DCS. These symptoms should manifest within 48 hours if a diver has developed DCS, though effects of the syndrome can begin to show within an hour of surfacing.

Neurological, pulmonary, and lung decompression sickness are rarer and far more dangerous iterations of DCS. Symptoms range from incontinence to difficulty with balance and walking. The latter symptoms, when paired with other inner ear issues, are collectively regarded as “staggers.”

If any DCS symptom is perceived within 48 hours of a dive, individuals should absolutely seek immediate medical attention. Medical professionals may recommend that the diver spend time in a re-compression chamber, which, as one might infer, raises the ambient pressure around the injured diver to slow the rate of gas release from the body tissues and thus reduce the symptoms. Sufficient time at this higher pressure should allow the diver to safely “outgas” the compressed Nitrogen in his/her system and hopefully significantly reduce the likelihood of any long-term residual effects.

There is no way the recreational SCUBA diver can prevent gas from being absorbed into bodily tissues. It is a natural physical effect of the increasing water pressure as we go deeper. The deeper we go and the longer we stay down, the more gas we tend to absorb and the deeper it permeates into our tissues. Thus, our best means to manage DCS is to control our time at depth and our rate of ascent as we return to the surface.

So please remember to: make a dive plan, dive the plan, bring a buddy, mind your no decompression time limits, and ascend slowly and in controllable fashion. Lastly, one should always dive within the limits of his/her training.

Based in the greater Atlanta, Georgia, Carl Byington is an experienced entrepreneur and business executive at PHM Design, LLC. In addition to his engineering and business efforts, Carl Byington is an adventurer by nature. For his water sports, Carl enjoys kayaking, free diving, and SCUBA diving. Carl has taught and guided divers for about 7 years.

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