CHAPTER 20 — Diving Disorders Requiring Recompression Therapy 20-1
This chapter describes the diagnosis of diving disorders that either
require recompression therapy or that may complicate recompression therapy.
While you should adhere to the procedures as closely as possible, any mistakes or
discrepancies shall be brought to the attention of NAVSEA immediately. There
are instances where clear direction cannot be given; in these cases, contact the
Diving Medical Officers at NEDU or NDSTC for clarification. Telephone
numbers are listed in Volume 1, Appendix C.
This chapter is a reference for individuals trained in diving procedures. It
is also directed to users with a wide range in medical expertise, from the fleet diver
to the Diving Medical Officer. Certain treatment procedures require consultation
with a Diving Medical Officer for safe and effective use. In preparing for any
diving operation, it is mandatory that the dive team have a medical evacuation
plan and know the location of the nearest or most accessible Diving Medical
Officer and recompression chamber. The Diving Medical Personnel should be
involved in predive planning and in training to deal with medical emergencies.
Even if operators feel they know how to handle medical emergencies, a Diving
Medical officer should always be consulted whenever possible.
ARTERIAL GAS EMBOLISM
Arterial gas embolism, sometimes simply called gas embolism, is caused by entry
of gas bubbles into the arterial circulation which then act as blood vessel obstruc-
tions called emboli. These emboli are frequently the result of pulmonary
barotrauma caused by the expansion of gas taken into the lungs while breathing
under pressure and held in the lungs during ascent. The gas might have been
retained in the lungs by choice (voluntary breathholding) or by accident (blocked
air passages). The gas could have become trapped in an obstructed portion of the
lung that has been damaged from some previous disease or accident; or the diver,
reacting with panic to a difficult situation, may breathhold without realizing it. If
there is enough gas and if it expands sufficiently, the pressure will force gas
through the alveolar walls into surrounding tissues and into the bloodstream. If the
gas enters the arterial circulation, it will be dispersed to all organs of the body. The
organs that are especially susceptible to arterial gas embolism and that are respon-
sible for the life-threatening symptoms are the central nervous system (CNS) and
heart. In all cases of arterial gas embolism, associated pneumothorax is possible
and should not be overlooked.
Arterial Embolism Development.
Arterial gas embolism may develop within
minutes of surfacing, causing severe symptoms that must be diagnosed and treated
20-2 U.S. Navy Diving Manual—Volume 5
quickly and correctly. Because the supply of blood to the central nervous system is
almost always involved, unless treated promptly and properly by recompression,
arterial gas embolism is likely to result in death or permanent brain damage.
Unconsciousness Caused by Arterial Gas Embolism.
Gas embolism can strike
during any dive where underwater breathing equipment is used, even a brief,
shallow dive, or one made in a swimming pool. As a basic rule, any diver who has
obtained a breath of compressed gas from any source at depth, whether from
diving apparatus or from a diving bell, and who surfaces unconscious or loses
consciousness within 10 minutes of reaching the surface, must be assumed to be
suffering from arterial gas embolism. Recompression treatment shall be started
immediately. A diver who surfaces unconscious and recovers when exposed to
fresh air shall receive a neurological evaluation to rule out arterial gas embolism.
Neurological Symptoms of Arterial Gas Embolism.
Divers surfacing with any
obvious neurological symptoms (numbness, weakness, or difficulty in thinking)
should be considered as suffering from an arterial gas embolism. Commence
recompression treatment as soon as possible.
Additional Symptoms of Arterial Gas Embolism.
Other factors to consider in
diagnosing arterial gas embolism are:
The onset is usually sudden and dramatic, often occurring within seconds after
arrival on the surface or even before reaching the surface. The signs and symp-
toms may include dizziness, paralysis or weakness in the extremities, large
areas of abnormal sensation, blurred vision, or convulsions. During ascent, the
diver may have noticed a sensation similar to that of a blow to the chest. The
victim may become unconscious without warning and may even stop
If pain is the only symptom, arterial gas embolism is unlikely and decompres-
sion sickness or one of the other pulmonary overinflation syndromes should be
Some symptoms may be masked by environmental factors or by other less sig-
nificant symptoms. A chilled diver may not be concerned with numbness in an
arm, which may actually be the sign of CNS involvement. Pain from any
source may divert attention from other symptoms. The natural anxiety that
accompanies an emergency situation, such as the failure of the diver's air sup-
ply, might mask a state of confusion caused by an arterial gas embolism to the
brain. A diver who is coughing up blood (which could be confused with
bloody froth) may be showing signs of ruptured lung tissue, or may have bit-
ten the tongue or experienced a sinus or middle ear squeeze.
Neurological Examination Guidelines.
Appendix 5A contains a set of guidelines
for performing a neurological examination and an examination checklist to assist
nonmedical personnel in evaluating decompression sickness cases.
CHAPTER 20 — Diving Disorders Requiring Recompression Therapy 20-3
Administering Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS) in the Embolized Diver.
A diver suffering from an arterial gas embolism with absence of a pulse or respira-
tions (cardiopulmonary arrest) requires Advanced Cardiac Life Support.
Performing ACLS requires that special medical training and equipment be readily
available. ACLS procedures include diagnosis of abnormal heart rhythms and
correction with drugs or electrical countershock (cardioversion or defibrillation).
Though patient monitoring and drug administration may be able to be performed
at depth, electrical countershock must be performed on the surface.
If an ACLS-trained medical provider or a Basic Life Support–Defibrillation
(BLS-D) provider with the necessary equipment can administer the potentially
life-saving therapies within 10 minutes, the stricken diver should be kept at the
surface until pulse and/or respirations are obtained. It must be realized that unless
ACLS procedures—especially defibrillation—can be administered within 10
minutes, the diver will likely die, even though adequate CPR has been begun. If a
Diving Medical Officer cannot be reached or is unavailable, the Diving Supervisor
may elect to compress to 60 feet, continue Basic Life Support, and attempt to
contact a Diving Medical Officer.
If ACLS becomes available within 20 minutes, the pulseless diver shall be brought
to the surface at 30 fpm and defibulated on the surface. (Current data shows there
is 0-percent recovery rate after 20 minutes of cardiac arrest with BLS.) If the
pulseless diver does not regain vital signs with ACLS procedures, continue CPR
until trained medical personnel terminate resuscitation efforts. Never recompress a
pulseless diver who has failed to regain vital signs after defibrillation or ACLS.
Resuscitation efforts shall continue until the diver recovers, the tenders are unable
to continue CPR, or trained medical personnel terminate the effort. If the pulseless
diver does regain vital signs, compress to 60 fsw and follow the appropriate treat-
CAUTION If the tender is outside of no-decompression limits, he should not be
ht directly to the surface. Either take the decompression stops
appropriate to the tender or lock in a new tender and decompress the
inal tender to complete decompression.
Prevention of Arterial Gas Embolism.
The potential hazard of arterial gas embo-
lism may be prevented or substantially reduced by careful attention to the
Proper, intensive training in diving physics and physiology for every diver, as
well as instruction in the correct use of various diving equipment. Particular
attention must be given to the training of scuba divers, because scuba opera-
tions produce a comparatively high incidence of embolism accidents.
A diver must never interrupt breathing during ascent from a dive in which
compressed gas has been breathed.
A diver making an emergency ascent must exhale continuously. The rate of
exhalation must match the rate of ascent. For a free ascent, where the diver
20-4 U.S. Navy Diving Manual—Volume 5
uses natural buoyancy to be carried toward the surface, the rate of exhalation
must be great enough to prevent embolism, but not so great that the buoyancy
factors are canceled. With a buoyant ascent, where the diver is assisted by a
life preserver or buoyancy compensator, the rate of ascent may far exceed that
of a free ascent. The exhalation must begin before the ascent and must be a
strong, steady, forceful exhalation. It is difficult for an untrained diver to exe-
cute an emergency ascent properly. It is also often dangerous to train a diver in
the proper technique. No ascent training may be conducted unless fully quali-
fied instructors are present, a recompression chamber and Diving Medical
Technician are on scene, and a Diving Medical Officer is able to provide an
immediate response to an accident. Ascent training is distinctly different from
ascent operations as performed by Navy Special Warfare groups. Ascent oper-
ations are conducted by qualified divers or combat swimmers. These
operations require the supervision of an Ascent Supervisor but operational
conditions preclude the use of instructors.
Other factors in the prevention of gas embolism include good planning and
adherence to the established dive plan. Trying to extend a dive to finish a task
can too easily lead to the exhaustion of the air supply and the need for an
emergency ascent. The diver shall know and follow good diving practices and
keep in good physical condition. The diver shall not hesitate to report any ill-
nesses, especially respiratory illnesses such as colds, to the Diving Supervisor
or Diving Medical Personnel prior to diving.
Decompression sickness results from the formation of bubbles in the blood or
body tissues, and is caused by inadequate elimination of dissolved gas after a dive
or other exposure to high pressure. Decompression sickness may also occur with
exposure to subatmospheric pressures (altitude exposure), as in an altitude
chamber or sudden loss of cabin pressure in an aircraft. In certain individuals,
decompression sickness may occur from no-decompression dives, or decompres-
sion dives even when decompression procedures are followed meticulously.
Various conditions in the diver or in the diver’s surroundings may cause absorp-
tion of an excessive amount of inert gas or may inhibit the elimination of the
dissolved gas during normal controlled decompression. Any decompression sick-
ness that occurs must be treated by recompression. The following paragraphs
discuss the diagnosis of the various forms of decompression sickness. Once the
correct diagnosis is made, the appropriate treatment from Chapter 21 can be
chosen based on the initial evaluation.
Initial Episode of Decompression Sickness.
A wide range of symptoms may
accompany the initial episode of decompression sickness. The diver may exhibit
certain signs that only trained observers will identify as decompression sickness.
Some of the symptoms or signs will be so pronounced that there will be little
doubt as to the cause. Others may be subtle and some of the more important signs
could be overlooked in a cursory examination.
CHAPTER 20 — Diving Disorders Requiring Recompression Therapy 20-5
Differentiating Type I and Type II Symptoms.
For purposes of deciding the
appropriate treatment, symptoms of decompression sickness are generally divided
into two categories. Type I decompression sickness includes skin symptoms,
lymph node swelling and joint and/or muscle pain and is not life threatening. Type
II decompression sickness (also called serious decompression sickness) includes
symptoms involving the central nervous system, respiratory system, or circulatory
system. Type II decompression sickness may become life threatening. Because the
treatment of Type I and Type II symptoms may be different, it is important to
distinguish between these two types of decompression sicknesses. Type I and
Type II symptoms may or may not be present at the same time.
Type I Decompression Sickness.
Type I decompression sickness includes joint
pain (musculoskeletal or pain-only symptoms) and symptoms involving the skin
(cutaneous symptoms), or swelling and pain in lymph nodes.
Musculoskeletal Pain-Only Symptoms.
The most common symptom of decom-
pression sickness is joint pain. Other types of pain may occur which do not involve
joints. The pain may be mild or excruciating. The most common sites of joint pain
are the elbow, wrist, hand, knee, and ankle. The characteristic pain of Type I
decompression sickness usually begins gradually, is slight when first noticed and
may be difficult to localize. It may be located in a joint or muscle, may increase in
intensity, and is usually described as a deep, dull ache. The pain may or may not
be increased by movement of the affected joint, and the limb may be held prefer-
entially in certain positions to reduce the pain intensity (so-called guarding). The
hallmark of Type I pain is its dull, aching quality and confinement to particular
areas. It is always present at rest; it may or may not be made worse with
Differentiating Between Type I Pain and Injury.
The most difficult differentia-
tion is between the pain of Type I decompression sickness and the pain resulting
from a muscle sprain or bruise. If there is any doubt as to the cause of the pain,
assume the diver is suffering from decompression sickness and treat accordingly.
Frequently, pain may mask other more significant symptoms. Pain should not be
treated with drugs in an effort to make the patient more comfortable. The pain may
be the only way to localize the problem and monitor the progress of treatment.
Abdominal and Thoracic Pain.
Pain in the abdominal and thoracic areas, in-
cluding the hips and shoulders, may:
Be localized to joints between the ribs and spinal column or joints between the
ribs and sternum.
Present a shooting-type pain that radiates from the back around the body
(radicular or girdle pain).
Appear as a vague, aching (visceral) pain.
Any pain occurring in these regions should be considered as symptoms arising
from spinal cord involvement. Treat it as Type II decompression sickness.
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Cutaneous (Skin) Symptoms.
The most common skin manifestation of diving is
itching. Itching by itself is generally transient and does not require recompression.
Faint skin rashes may be present in conjunction with itching. These rashes also are
transient and do not require recompression. Mottling or marbling of the skin,
known as cutis marmorata (marbling), may precede a symptom of serious decom-
pression sickness and shall be treated by recompression as Type II decompression
sickness. This condition starts as intense itching, progresses to redness, and then
gives way to a patchy, dark-bluish discoloration of the skin. The skin may feel
thickened. In some cases the rash may be raised.
Lymphatic obstruction may occur, creating localized pain
in involved lymph nodes and swelling of the tissues drained by these nodes.
Recompression may provide prompt relief from pain. The swelling, however, may
take longer to resolve completely and may still be present at the completion of
Type II Decompression Sickness.
In the early stages, symptoms of Type II
decompression sickness may not be obvious and the stricken diver may consider
them inconsequential. The diver may feel fatigued or weak, and attribute the
condition to overexertion. Even as weakness becomes more severe, the diver may
not seek treatment until walking, hearing, or urinating becomes difficult. For this
reason, symptoms must be anticipated during the postdive period and treated
before they become too severe.
Differentiating Between Type II DCS and AGE.
Many of the symptoms of Type II
decompression sickness are the same as those of arterial gas embolism, although
the time course is generally different. (AGE usually occurs within 10 minutes of
surfacing.) Since the initial treatment of these two conditions is the same and since
subsequent treatment conditions are based on the response of the patient to treat-
ment, treatment should not be delayed unnecessarily in order to make the
diagnosis in severely ill patients.
Type II Symptom Categories.
Type II, or serious symptoms, are divided into
three categories: neurological, inner ear (staggers), and cardiopulmonary (chokes)
symptoms. Type I symptoms may or may not be present at the same time.
These symptoms may be the result of involvement of
any level of the nervous system. Numbness, paresthesias (a tingling, pricking,
creeping, “pins and needles,” or “electric” sensation on the skin), decreased sensa-
tion to touch, muscle weakness, paralysis, mental status changes, or motor
performance alterations are the most common symptoms. Disturbances of higher
brain function may result in personality changes, amnesia, bizarre behavior, light-
headedness, incoordination, and tremors. Lower spinal cord involvement can
cause disruption of urinary function. Some of these signs may be subtle and can be
overlooked or dismissed by the stricken diver as being of no consequence.
The occurrence of any neurological symptom is abnormal after a dive and should
be considered a symptom of Type II decompression sickness or arterial gas embo-
lism, unless another specific cause can be found. Normal fatigue is not uncommon
CHAPTER 20 — Diving Disorders Requiring Recompression Therapy 20-7
after long dives and, by itself, is not usually treated as decompression sickness. If
the fatigue is unusually severe, a complete neurological examination is indicated
to ensure there is no other neurological involvement.
Inner Ear Symptoms (“Staggers”).
The symptoms of inner ear decompression
sickness include: tinnitus (ringing in the ears), hearing loss, vertigo, dizziness,
nausea, and vomiting. Inner ear decompression sickness has occurred most often
in helium-oxygen diving and during decompression when the diver switched from
breathing heliox to air. Inner ear decompression sickness should be differentiated
from inner ear barotrauma, since the treatments are different. Staggers has been
used as another name for inner ear decompression sickness due to the afflicted
diver's difficulty in walking. However, symptoms of the staggers may be due to
neurological decompression sickness involving the cerebellum. Typically, rapid
involuntary eye movement (nystagmus) is not present in cerebellar decompression
Cardiopulmonary Symptoms (“Chokes”).
If profuse intravascular bubbling
occurs, symptoms of chokes may develop due to congestion of the lung circula-
tion. Chokes may start as chest pain aggravated by inspiration and/or as an
irritating cough. Increased breathing rate is usually observed. Symptoms of
increasing lung congestion may progress to complete circulatory collapse, loss of
consciousness, and death if recompression is not instituted immediately.
Time Course of Symptoms.
Decompression sickness symptoms usually occur
shortly following the dive or other pressure exposure. If the controlled decompres-
sion during ascent has been shortened or omitted, the diver could be suffering
from decompression sickness before reaching the surface.
Onset of Symptoms.
In analyzing several thousand air dives in a database set up
by the U.S. Navy for developing decompression models, the time of onset of
symptoms after surfacing was as follows:
42 percent occurred within 1 hour.
60 percent occurred within 3 hours.
83 percent occurred within 8 hours.
98 percent occurred within 24 hours.
While a history of diving (or altitude exposure) is necessary for the
diagnosis of decompression sickness to be made, the depth and duration of the
dive are useful only in establishing if required decompression was missed.
NOTE Decompression sickness can occur in divers well within no-
decompression limits or who have carefully followed decompression
When Treatment Is Not Necessary.
If the reason for postdive symptoms is firmly
established to be due to causes other than decompression sickness or arterial gas
embolism (e.g., injury, sprain, poorly fitting equipment), then recompression is
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not necessary. If the diving supervisor cannot rule out the need for recompression,
then commence treatment.
Altitude Decompression Sickness.
Aviators exposed to altitude may experience
symptoms of decompression sickness similar to those experienced by divers. The
only major difference is that symptoms of spinal cord involvement are less
common and symptoms of brain involvement are more frequent in altitude decom-
pression sickness than hyperbaric decompression sickness. Simple pain, however,
still accounts for the majority of symptoms.
Joint Pain Treatment.
If only joint pain was present but resolved before reaching
one ata from altitude, then the individual may be treated with two hours of 100
percent oxygen breathing at one atmosphere followed by 24 hours of observation.
If symptoms persist after return to one ata from altitude, the stricken individual
should be transferred to a recompression facility for treatment.
Transfer and Treatment.
Individuals should be kept on 100 percent oxygen
during transfer to the recompression facility. If symptoms have resolved by the
time the individual has reached a recompression facility, they should be examined
for any residual symptoms. If any decompression symptom had been present at
any time or if even the most minor symptom is present they should be treated with
the appropriate treatment table as if the original symptoms were still present.