Decompression illness, or DCI, is a term used to describe illness that results from a reduction in the ambient pressure surrounding a body. A good example is what happens to your body when you’re surfacing after a dive.
DCI encompasses two diseases, decompression sickness (DCS) and arterial gas embolism (AGE). DCS is thought to result from bubbles growing in tissue and causing local damage, while AGE results from bubbles entering the lung circulation, traveling through the arteries and causing tissue damage at a distance by blocking blood flow at the small vessel level.
Who Gets DCI?
Decompression illness affects scuba divers, aviators, astronauts and compressed-air workers. It occurs in approximately 1,000 U.S. scuba divers each year. Moreover, Decompression Illness hits randomly. The main risk factor for DCI is a reduction in ambient pressure, but there are other risk factors that will increase the chance of DCI occurring. These known risk factors are deep / long dives, cold water, hard exercise at depth, and rapid ascents.
Rapid ascents are closely linked to the risk of AGE. Other factors thought to increase the risk of DCI but for which evidence is not conclusive are obesity, dehydration, hard exercise immediately after surfacing, and pulmonary disease. In addition, there seem to be individual risk factors that have not yet been identified. This is why some divers seem to get DCI more frequently than others although they are following the same dive profile.
Since Decompression Illness is a random event, almost any dive profile can result in DCI, no matter how safe it seems. The reason is that the risk factors, both known and unknown, can influence the probability of Decompression Illness in myriad ways. Because of this, evaluation of a diver for possible decompression illness must be made on a case-by-case basis by evaluating the diver’s signs and symptoms and not just based on the dive profile.
Decompression sickness (DCS, also called the bends or caisson disease) is the result of inadequate decompression following exposure to increased pressure. In some cases, the disease is mild and not an immediate threat. In other cases, serious injury does occur; when this happens, the quicker treatment begins, the better the chance for a full recovery.
During a dive, the body tissues absorb nitrogen from the breathing gas in proportion to the surrounding pressure. As long as the diver remains at pressure, the gas presents no problem. If the pressure is reduced too quickly, however, the nitrogen comes out of solution and forms bubbles in the tissues and bloodstream. This commonly occurs as a result of violating or approaching too closely the diving table limits, but it can also occur even when accepted guidelines have been followed.
Bubbles forming in or near joints are the presumed cause of the joint pain of a classical “bend.” When high levels of bubbles occur, complex reactions can take place in the body, usually in the spinal cord or brain. Numbness, paralysis and disorders of higher cerebral function may result. If great amounts of decompression are missed and large numbers of bubbles enter the venous bloodstream, congestive symptoms in the lung and circulatory shock can then occur.
Symptoms of DCS
– Unusual fatigue
– Skin itch
– Pain in joints and / or muscles of the arms, legs or torso
– Dizziness, vertigo, ringing in the ears
– Numbness, tingling and paralysis
– Shortness of breath
Signs of DCS
– Skin may show a blotchy rash
– Paralysis, muscle weakness
– Difficulty urinating
– Confusion, personality changes, bizarre behavior
– Amnesia, tremors
– Coughing up bloody, frothy sputum
– Collapse or unconsciousness
Note: Symptoms and signs usually appear within 15 minutes to 12 hours after surfacing; but in severe cases, symptoms may appear before surfacing or immediately afterwards. Delayed occurrence of symptoms is rare, but it does occur, especially if air travel follows diving.
Denial and Recognition
The most common manifestations of DCS are joint pain and numbness or tingling. Next most common are muscular weakness and inability to empty a full bladder. Severe DCS is easy to identify because the signs and symptoms are obvious. However, most DCS manifests subtly with a minor joint ache or a paresthesia (an abnormal sensation like burning, tingling or ticking) in an extremity.
In many cases these symptoms are ascribed to another cause such as overexertion, heavy lifting or even a tight wetsuit. This delays seeking help and is why it is often noted that the first symptom of DCS is denial. Sometimes these symptoms remain mild and go away by themselves, but many times they increase in severity until it is obvious to you that something is wrong and that you need help.
What happens if you don’t seek treatment? In severe DCS, a permanent residual handicap may result: this can be a bladder dysfunction, sexual dysfunction or muscular weakness, to name a few.
In some cases of neurological DCS, there mat be permanent damage to the spinal cord, which may or may not cause symptoms. However, this type of damage may decrease the likelihood of recovery from a subsequent bout of DCS.
Untreated joint pains that subside are thought to cause small areas of bone damage called osteonecrosis. Usually this will not cause symptoms unless there are many bouts of untreated DCS. If this happens, however, there may be enough damage to cause the bone to become brittle or for joints to collapse or become arthritic.
Prevention of DCS
Recreational divers should dive conservatively, whether they are using dive tables or computers. Experienced divers often select a table depth (versus actual depth) of 10 feet (3 meters) deeper than called for by standard procedure. This practice is highly recommended for all divers, especially when diving in cold water or when diving under strenuous conditions. Computer divers should be cautious in approaching no-decompression limits, especially when diving deeper than 100 feet (30 meters).
Avoiding the risk factors noted above (deep / long dives, exercise at depth or after a dive) will decrease the chance of DCS occurring. Exposure to altitude or flying too soon after a dive can also increase the risk of decompression sickness. DAN has recently published guidelines for flying after diving.*
Arterial Gas Embolism
If a diver surfaces without exhaling, air trapped in the lungs expands with ascent and may rupture lung tissue – called pulmonary barotrauma – which releases gas bubbles into the arterial circulation. This distributes them to body tissues in proportion to the blood flow. Since the brain receives the highest proportion of blood flow, it is the main target organ where bubbles may interrupt circulation if they become lodged in small arteries.
This is arterial gas embolism, or AGE, considered the more serious form of DCI. In some cases the diver may have made a panicked ascent, or he may have held his breath during ascent. However, AGE can occur even if ascent appeared completely normal, and pulmonary disease such as obstructive lung disease may increase the risk of AGE.
The most dramatic presentation of air embolism is the diver who surfaces unconscious and remains so, or the diver who loses consciousness within 10 minutes of surfacing. In these cases, a true medical emergency exists, and rapid evacuation to a treatment facility is paramount.
On the other hand, air embolism may cause less spectacular symptoms of neurological dysfunction, such as sensations of tingling or numbness, a sensation of weakness without obvious paralysis, or complaints of difficulty in thinking without obvious confusion in individuals who are awake and easily aroused. In these cases, there is time for a more thorough evaluation by a diving medical specialist to rule out other causes of symptoms.
Like DCS, mild symptoms may be ascribed to causes other than the dive, which only delays treatment. Sometimes symptoms may resolve spontaneously and the diver will not seek treatment. The consequences of this are similar to untreated DCS: residual damage to the brain may occur, making it more likely there will be residual symptoms after a future bout of AGE, even if the later bout is treated.
Symptoms of AGE
– Visual blurring
– Areas of decreased sensation
– Chest pain
Signs of AGE
– Bloody froth from mouth or nose
– Paralysis or weakness
– Cessation of breathing
Currently cerebral gas embolism is responsible for approximately 10 percent of all DCI cases annually. AGE has decreased significantly over the past decade, however, moving from 18 percent of all cases in the late 1980s and early 1990s to much lower numbers. By 1997, the fraction had fallen to 7-8 percent.
In 2001, AGE was still cited in 7-8 percent but by 2002 it had fallen to 6.6 percent of the total diving population reporting DCI. It has been speculated that one of the reasons for this decrease is the advent of dive computers, which help chart the rate of ascent, thus reminding divers to slow down.
Prevention of AGE
Always relax and breathe normally during ascent. Lung conditions such as asthma, infections, cysts, tumors, scar tissue from surgery or obstructive lung disease may predispose a diver to air embolism. If you have any of these conditions, it warrants an evaluation by a physician knowledgeable in diving medicine.
The treatment for DCI is recompression. However, the early management of air embolism and decompression sickness is the same. Although a diver with severe DCS or an air embolism requires urgent recompression for definitive treatment, it is essential that he be stabilized at the nearest medical facility before transportation to a chamber.
Early oxygen first aid is important and may reduce symptoms substantially, but this should not change the treatment plan. Symptoms of air embolism and serious decompression sickness often clear after initial oxygen breathing, but they may reappear later. Because of this, always contact DAN or a dive physician in cases of suspected DCI – even if the symptoms and signs appear to have resolved.
Treatment involves compression to a treatment depth, usually 60 feet, and breathing high oxygen fraction gases at an oxygen partial pressure of between 2.8 ata (atmospheres) and 3.0 ata. Delays in seeking treatment have a higher risk of residual symptoms; over time, the initially reversible damage may become permanent. After a delay of 24 hours or more, treatment may become ineffective and symptoms may not respond to treatment. Even if there has been a delay, however, consult a diving medical specialist before drawing any conclusions about possible treatment effectiveness.
In some cases, there may be residual symptoms after a treatment. Soreness in and around a joint that was affected by DCS is common and usually resolves in a few hours. If the DCI was severe, significant residual neurological dysfunction may be present, even after the most aggressive treatment. In these cases, there may be follow-up treatments, along with physical therapy. The good news is that the usual outcome is eventual complete relief from all symptoms, provided treatment was begun promptly.
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