First-Time Diver? Beware of The Bends!

Published on: 19/07/2022

Here's a beginner's guide to Decompression Sickness (DCS), a.k.a. The Bends.

Picture this:

It's a long weekend. You and your friends decided to escape the city and travel to a famous diving spot for a short vacation. As first-time divers, you and your friends have undergone training on diving but took it a bit far on an actual day. It was fun while it lasted.

A few days after returning to the city, you realize something's wrong. Back pains, headaches, and even fatigue replaced your fun memories, which affected your Monday, so you decided to call in sick and go to the doctor.

Have you ever experienced this after diving? You might be having The Bends.

The Bends

Decompression Sickness (DCS), also known as The Bends, is a condition usually experienced in high-or low-altitude activities such as diving or aerospace travel. Due to changes in pressure, nitrogen bubbles may dissolve in body tissues, affecting different body areas, including the joints, lungs, heart, skin, and brain.

Think of it as a bottle of soda. If the soda surfaces too fast, nitrogen/gas bubbles form with it. DCS happens when the diver either comes up too quickly, stays too long underwater, or dives too deep.

Symptoms and signs

A patient suffering from The Bends may experience:

  • Pain in and around significant joints (elbows, shoulders, etc.)
  • Pain in the head, neck, or torso
  • Fatigue
  • Skin rashes
  • Itching (Note: Patient will only be vulnerable if not covered up by a wet suit.)
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • PULMONARY DCS - The patient may experience chest pain, cough, and shock.
  • NEUROLOGICAL DCS - This usually attacks the spinal cord. The patient may experience lower back pain, heaviness/numbness of legs, incontinence, dizziness, confusion, decreased awareness, loss of consciousness, loss or limited vision, and difficulty with balance or walking
  • STAGGERS - A patient with DCS may also experience spinning sensation, deafness, ringing in the ears, and vomiting. These are called "staggers."

These symptoms may manifest within at least 48 hours after diving.

Medical Treatment

A patient manifesting a few symptoms should be seen by a doctor immediately. The doctor will treat immediate life threats first, such as chest pain and difficulty in breathing. If present, the patient will need high-flow oxygen and IV fluids.

Once the patient is cleared, The Bends is treated in a hyperbaric recompression chamber. The patient will then be monitored for further symptoms.

Once treated, the patient should not dive again until cleared by a doctor. Depending on the severity of the symptoms, the doctor may recommend not to dive again or avoid diving for a specified period.


The following may increase the risk of developing The Bends:

  • Diving outside Dive Table Recommendations
  • Flying within 18 hours after diving – Studies show that 17% of divers experience DCS while flying after diving. It is recommended that you wait at least 48 hours from more complex diving, in case you experience a few symptoms.
  • Diving in cold water
  • Obesity
  • Dehydration
  • Recent alcohol intoxication
  • Vigorous exertion while diving
  • Multiple repetitive dives
  • Jogging or other heavy exercise within six hours of the dive

As beginners, we tend to get excited when diving for the first time, but sometimes the excitement may lead to severe repercussions if we are not following the precautions of it. So let's be reminded of ways on how to prevent this to have an enjoyable vacation.

Happy diving!