Planning A Scuba Vacation? Avoid Decompression Sickness with These Tips from MedFlight911
Scuba diving is a great activity, offering a truly amazing way to explore underwater environments. But diving also comes with certain risks, including the chance of developing decompression sickness (also known as "the bends") Decompression sickness is a serious condition. If you develop decompression sickness, you may need to arrange medical transport so that you can receive medical care (such as a special type of hyperbaric chamber).
As always with traveling it is important to research ahead of time and consider what medical treatment is available during your holiday. MedFlight911 recently had to transport a patient with serious decompression sickness from the Maldives because she wasn't able to receive adequate medical treatment on the island. She was experiencing decompression sickness and required a four atmosphere hyperbaric chamber, something that is available at only a handful of locations around the globe. We will discuss her transport in more detail in an upcoming blog, today we'll offer an overview of decompression sickness, explain how you can avoid it, and review the risks of flying if you have the condition.
What Is Decompression Sickness?
In the simplest terms, decompression sickness happens when gas bubbles (usually nitrogen) form in parts of your body where they shouldn't be. These bubbles form as a result of changes in pressure when you go scuba diving. (The bends can be caused by other activities, but scuba diving is the most common cause.)
When you dive, nitrogen builds up in your body. The longer and deeper you dive, the more nitrogen builds up. If you dive too deeply for too long, or you surface too quickly, you can develop decompression sickness when the nitrogen bubbles stored in your body expand when you come to the surface. Depending on where the nitrogen is stored in your body, you will experience pain in these locations when the nitrogen expands.
Signs and symptoms of decompression sickness include:
- Pain around the joints
- Extreme fatigue
- A red, itchy rash
- A burning pain in the chest, cough, difficulty breathing, and blue lips (known as "the chokes")
- Dizziness or confusion
- Numbness or paralysis in the legs
- Pain in the head, neck, or upper body
- Deafness, ringing in the ears, or vomiting (sometimes called "the staggers")
If you experience these or other symptoms after a dive, you should seek immediate medical treatment. Some symptoms may be obvious right away, but others may take up to two days to appear. If you've gone diving recently, it's critical that you watch out for symptoms and seek care if necessary. The Divers Alert Network had both emergency (1-919-684-9111) and non-emergency (1-919-684-2948) hotlines you can call if you think you may have decompression sickness symptoms and aren't sure what to do.
Avoiding Decompression Sickness
You can reduce the risk of developing decompression sickness by taking some precautionary measures:
- Follow all recommendation regarding dive depths and times
- Come up slowly after a dive - It is recommended you stop at 15-20 feet for 3-5 minutes.
- Conduct a safety stop when coming up from a deep dive
- Avoid flying after diving. The Divers Alert Network suggests an interval of at least 12 hours between diving and flying (a longer interval is recommended if you've gone on multiple dives)
- Do not dive while intoxicated
- Avoid exercising soon after diving
- Avoid diving in cold water, since cold water can increase the risk of the bends
Other factors that can increase the risk of decompression sickness include obesity, dehydration, injury or illness, older age, and poor physical fitness levels.
Flying with Decompression Sickness
As mentioned above, flying shortly after diving can increase your risk of developing decompression sickness. But what if you've already developed decompression sickness and need to get home or to another location for medical treatment? Depending on the severity of your condition and the length of time since your last dive, commercial air travel may be out of the question, even with a medical escort. You may have no choice but to hire an air ambulance.
In our recent transport's case, she required a four atmosphere hyperbaric chamber and was not medically able to fly commercially. An air ambulance was crucial for her transport. We were able to fly at lower altitude and control the cabin pressure to simulate flying at sea level to avoid making her decompression sickness worse. Check back for more details on this transport and how we tailored our flight plan specifically to the patient's needs.