Learn what the most prominent symptom of decompression sickness is.
Bubbles in the bloodstream. Decompression sickness is a very real risk of scuba diving. Learn what the symptoms are and how to prevent it.

Decompression sickness (DCI) is the fear of many divers. With current diver training and equipment, however, it is remarkably easy to prevent decompression sickness altogether. It is natural to be a little paranoid after scuba diving, especially if you accidentally ascended too fast and your computer beeped at you. How will you know if you have any symptoms? It will help to know what the most prominent symptom of decompression sickness is.

It is important to understand the difference between a sign and a symptom to answer this question. The victim feels a symptom and communicates it to others. Whereas others can observe a visible sign of the sickness.

The Most Prominent Symptom Of Decompression Sickness Is

Joint pain is the most prominently occurring symptom of decompression sickness. In fact, in Deco for Divers, Mark Powell observes that local joint pain occurs in 89% of all DCS cases in the US Navy.

Decompression sickness is also commonly known as “the bends”. It appeared frequently in construction workers in 1871 and further reinforces joint pain as a prominent symptom in DCS cases.

Decompression Sickness Symptoms

The most common symptoms of decompression sickness include the following:

  • Local joint pain (mainly in shoulders, elbows, wrists, hips, knees, and ankles)
  • Weakness in the arms and legs
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Trouble thinking clearly
  • Numbness & tingling
  • Extreme fatigue

These are all felt by the victim of decompression sickness and communicated to others. In decompression sickness symptoms almost always precede signs which makes it rather difficult to diagnose.

From personal experience I know to never ignore any symptoms voiced by a diver. Without being overattentive and feeding the general anxiety surrounding DCS, we do need to be vigilant. Severe dehydration can also cause numbness and tingling, a headache, and even weakness in arms or legs. Decompression sickness needs to be treated until it can be ruled out for certain.

First Aid for signs and symptoms of suspected DCS is 100% Oxygen to be administered on the surface.

In fact, a common predisposing factor to DCS is dehydration. I myself have called dive medics countless times with suspected symptoms of decompression sickness which later turned out to be cases of dehydration.

Other Common Symptoms Of DCS

According to the research of Mark Powell, neurological symptoms follow local join pain as next in line. With 10% to 15% of DCS cases observed as reporting neurological symptoms, most commonly headaches and visual disturbances.

Skin manifestations are also quite common and occur in about 10% to 15% of DCS cases. Divers may complain about itchy skin which would be a symptom. However, a skin rash that is observable by others would have to correctly be classified as a sign.

This leaves pulmonary symptoms, known as “the chokes”, the least common symptom. Similar to skin manifestations, this can also be classified as a sign, depending on the severity.

Prevention of Decompression Sickness

It is very easy to prevent decompression sickness by always following safe diving practices. After all the most common cause of DCS is diver error. Scuba divers that push limits and do not plan their dives with enough contingencies. A lot of times it is simply divers diving beyond their personal and training limits.

The absolute physical limitations of diving are still being explored and discovered. Diving deeper lures many adrenaline seekers to risk decompression sickness. It goes without saying that those pioneers are at much higher risks of the bends than recreational divers.

Make sure dive operators you chose always carry enough 100% Oxygen (O2) onboard. I would never dive with an operation that does not provide 100% O2. This is the best medicine available for DCS and not harmful if administered under supervision.

It is therefore very good to know what the most prominent symptom of decompression sickness is. Precautionary measures can and should be taken even under suspicion. This grants the victim the maximum chance of a 100% recovery.

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