Decompression Sickness: Getting the Bends on a Weekend Dive Trip

Back home (now), Edinburgh
2/10/2016

The bends (or more properly, decompression sickness) is one of those things that you sort of hear of in the diving community, but sort of just assume only happens to submariners coming up too quick or the divers who just can’t do the basics like bouyancy or good breath control. ‘It sounds like you might have an audiovestibular bend’ is not one of those phrases you expect to hear at the end of a weekend diving trip though…

I’d gone up for a weekend of diving with my local dive club to Lochaline – a place not quite deserving of the moniker Town – on the west coast of Scotland. Looking out over the water you could see the Isle of Mull, but down in the water up and down the weather-protected channel are loads of walls to dive along, wrecks to swim around and the odd bit of fish, crab and scallop life to go hunting for.

Over the two days we did five fairly stunning dives (or at least they were stunning after I worked out that my mask had fogged up, and actually the visibility was better than about a metre…). All of them were in the 25-30m depth range, but I thought there was nothing too concerning about that. After three dives on the Saturday, we were all pretty knackered, but the food at the lovely Morvern Dive Lodge kept us all going, and we settled into some comfy couches for a bit of a nightcap.

A scenic island shot in the Sound of Mull
A little island halfway between Lochaline and Tobermory in the Sound of Mull

On Sunday we had two dives lined up, finishing with a dive around the Hispania wreck. Again, everything went fine with them and we came up from the last dive and started to pull our kit apart, ready to load up when we got back to the shore. I got myself sorted, wandered into the cabin to find some food and fill in my logbook, and then sat down for a bit of a snooze on the trip back. As is always the way with a bit of deep diving, I was still waiting to my ears to catch up to being on the surface, but finally after half an hour or so, the left one popped.

That’s where it all started to go downhill.

With just one ear equalised, I started to feel a bit dizzy, and soon enough this moved into nausea – but none of it struck me as too serious, all just something that would settle if I could get my right ear to clear…

Back on shore and another hour or so of me still struggling with dizziness, nausea and a spot of throwing up, and it was decided I should probably be taken to hospital, just to be safe…

An hour or so’s drive along the road, and an hour or so of very quick responding check-up, monitoring and prodding in Oban’s hospital, and I was headed for the hyperbaric chamber across town, diagnosed with decompression sickness.

It’s one of those things you don’t think about too much unless you have some sort of reason to, but a bend is a fairly simple thing. When you’re diving and breathing compressed air, your body’s picking up and retaining more nitrogen than it would just breathing out and about. It’s not normally an issue as usual diving practice gives you enough pauses at depth and time between dives to just breath it back out. If something goes a bit wrong though or (as far as I can tell in my case) enough little things that wouldn’t concern individually combine, then the nitrogen can become separated from the rest of the air in your bloodstream as your body decompresses as you come up and you get bubbles popping up in random places.

The hyperbaric chamber for treating decompression sickness
The re-compression chamber

Usually it’s in a joint – apparently quite painful but easy to fix – and people bend over to alleviate the pain (and so the name!), but it can occur just about anywhere. I had it in the inner ear, but the guys at the re-compression chamber had stories of decompression sickness affecting someones spine and the internet has plenty of other horrifying bend stories.

On the Sunday night, I spent about seven and a half hours in the chamber breathing pure oxygen, with 20 minute breaks after each hour, all trying to clear the last of the nitrogen out.

It’s not too bad in the chamber once you get used to it, but walking up to it the first time is slightly terrifying. The only reference for one of these I could think of was from the Bond film Licence To Kill, where a henchman gets thrown in, pressurised, then explosively de-compressed with a bit of a splatter…not the best mental image for climbing into a 2-metre circumference metal tank.

Oxygen mask on and bored in the chamber
Oxygen mask on and bored in the chamber

In the end, across four sessions in a roughly 72 hour period, I spent about 15 hours in the chamber, trying to blast the last little bit of decompression sickness out of my head. After two sessions the dizziness and vertigo had shifted, leaving just a bit of a cotton-wool feeling in my head. The final two sessions did a bit to lighten it up, but it still hasn’t quite cleared all the way. Finally, on Thursday I managed to get home, my weekend dive trip having now extended to almost a week!

From the sound of things, I’ve been pretty lucky – there shouldn’t be any long term consequences to getting the bend (and the fuzziness in my head should clear up properly soon). It’s all a bit of an eye opener though – there’s nothing I can work out from my dive or from my dive computer log that would explain getting decompression sickness. All I can assume is it was a combination of cold water, five 25m-30m dives across two days, and a drink or two too many the night before all adding up to create the conditions in my body for the bends to happen.

It certainly gives me something to think about before going diving again…

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