Decompression Sickness

Decompression sickness occurs when a person moves from an area of high pressure to an area of low pressure without giving the body enough time to adjust. It occurs most commonly in divers who have been under water for too long, at too great a depth. It is also known as "the bends." It can also occur from flying in an unpressurized aircraft or when aircraft cabin pressure is lost during flight. Any symptom that may be due to decompression sickness is considered a medical emergency.


Decompression sickness is caused by rapidly decreasing air pressure or water pressure around the body. When the body is exposed to high pressure, gas dissolves into the blood. It is important to decrease the pressure gradually so that the gases can slowly clear out of the blood. If pressure is decreased too rapidly, gas bubbles form in the tissues and blood. These gas bubbles cause decompression sickness.


Symptoms begin within 36 hours after returning to low pressure. Symptoms can include:

  • Pain or tingling in a joint.

  • Weakness, tingling, or numbness in the arms or legs.

  • Dizziness.

  • Headache.

  • Confusion.

  • Fatigue.

  • Vision changes.

  • Difficulty breathing.


Your caregiver will take your medical history and perform a physical exam. There are no specific tests for decompression sickness. However, your caregiver may order blood tests and X-ray exams to help determine what is wrong.


Treatment involves giving oxygen therapy, giving fluids through an intravenous (IV) tube, treating the symptoms, and emergency transfer to a hyperbaric oxygen facility for treatment with hyperbaric oxygen. For this treatment, the person enters a chamber where oxygen is delivered under forced pressure. This dissolves the gas bubbles that developed in the body.


  • Do not fly during the first 48 hours after diving.

  • Do not stay at your deepest depth for longer than recommended. Dive tables can help determine how long you can stay at a certain depth. Remember that dive tables are calculated for young, healthy divers. Make adjustments as needed.

  • Do not drink alcohol before diving.

  • Make sure you are rested and well-hydrated before diving.

  • When diving, descend and rise slowly.

  • Avoid hot tubs and saunas after diving.


  • Drink enough fluids to keep your urine clear or pale yellow.

  • Avoid smoking and alcohol.


  • You have trouble moving your arms or legs.

  • You have pain or numbness in your arms or legs.

  • You lose control of your bladder or bowel movements.

  • You experience memory loss or vision changes.

  • You develop chest pain, wheezing, or shortness of breath.

  • You have a fever.


  • Understand these instructions.

  • Will watch your condition.

  • Will get help right away if you are not doing well or get worse.