The bends in scuba diving can affect almost any area of the body or any organ. Symptoms of decompression sickness usually occur within one hour and up to twenty-four hours after a dive; sometimes even longer in severe cases.
Symptoms of the bends include the following:
- Joint and muscle pain
- Confusion and unusual behavior
- Coughing up blood
- Difficulty urinating
- Dizziness or vertigo
- Loss of hearing or ringing in ears
- Memory loss
- Sensitive, painful, or itchy skin
- Shortness of breath
- Tingling, numbness, and paralysis
- Uncontrollable shaking
- Visual disturbances
Decompression sickness is usually divided into two categories. According to the Divers Alert Network, “Type 1 DCS is usually characterized by musculoskeletal pain and mild cutaneous, or skin, symptoms,” and “Type 2 symptoms are considered more serious. They typically fall into three categories: neurological, inner ear, and cardiopulmonary.”
Itching skin and mild rashes are a typical Type 1 symptom. Swelling and localized pain in the tissues surrounding lymph nodes, such as the groin, armpits or behind the ears, is another Type 1 symptom; but is less common.
In Type 2 DCS, neurological symptoms generally include numbness, muscle weakness, confusion, difficulty walking, paresthesia, or a tingling sensation. Ringing in the ears, known as “tinnitus,” as well as hearing loss, vertigo, vomiting, and impaired balance are also common. These symptoms are related to the inner ear. Dry cough, chest pain, and breathing difficulty are Type 2 cardiopulmonary symptoms.
In extreme cases of decompression sickness, nitrogen bubbles in the brain can form; or in the spinal cord or nervous system column. If any of these symptoms are noticed during or after a dive, it is essential to react quickly. If still on the dive, end the dive immediately but safely. After the dive, remain calm, contact local emergency services, and administer 100% oxygen and fluids as soon as possible.