Decompression Sickness

In this Article

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is used to treat decompression sickness in scuba divers. During these treatments, you breathe pressurized oxygen while you lie inside a clear plastic tube. This helps your body remove the nitrogen that can build up during a dive and make you sick. Side effects from the treatment are rare.

What is hyperbaric oxygen therapy?

Hyperbaric [hahy-per-bar-ik] oxygen therapy is a treatment for many kinds of illnesses and injuries. During this treatment, you breathe pure oxygen in a special chamber where the air pressure is two or three times higher than normal. This lets your lungs take in more oxygen than they normally can and helps your body remove extra nitrogen.

What are the risks and/or side effects?

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is usually considered safe and side effects are rare. However, there are some risks associated with the high air pressure used. These risks include:

  • Ruptured eardrum
  • Collapsed lung
  • Temporary nearsightedness (not being able to clearly see things that are far away). This usually goes away in a few days or weeks.

Another risk of hyperbaric oxygen therapy is seizure caused by having too much oxygen in your body.

What are the benefits?

During scuba diving, nitrogen builds up inside your body. When you come up, the nitrogen can form bubbles in your joints, muscles, skin, and other parts of your body. This causes decompression sickness or “the bends.” Decompression sickness has many symptoms, including pain, numbness, weakness, nausea, and vomiting. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy can treat decompression sickness and help your symptoms.

How do I prepare?

You should not drink alcohol within 8 hours of hyperbaric oxygen therapy.

Because oxygen can cause a fire if there is a spark, you should not bring a lighter or any device with a battery in it into the hyperbaric oxygen therapy treatment area.

Avoid skin care products with petroleum jelly before treatment. They are also a fire hazard around oxygen.

How is it done or administered?

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy usually is given at a special outpatient clinic. You will lie on a table inside a long clear plastic tube. The tube will be sealed and filled with pressurized oxygen. You might feel popping or fullness in your ears, similar to the way you feel taking off in an airplane. If this happens, it can help to swallow or yawn.

The clinic staff will be able to see and hear you during your treatment and you can talk to them. You should try to relax and breathe normally. Your treatment will take between 30 minutes and 2 hours. You might feel tired or lightheaded afterwards. This should go away soon.

When will I know the results?

Depending on how serious your decompression sickness is, you might need only one hyperbaric oxygen treatment or several treatments.

What are follow-up requirements and options?

If your decompression sickness was not serious, you will probably be able to scuba dive again. However, some people with serious decompression sickness should not continue scuba diving. A doctor will evaluate you to decide if you can scuba dive again and how long you need to wait before diving.

What should I expect during recovery?

After a hyperbaric oxygen treatment, you should:

  • Get plenty of rest for the next 24 hours.
  • Drink lots of fluids; avoid alcohol and caffeinated drinks such as coffee, tea, and colas.
  • Avoid taking hot showers or tub baths for 24 hours.
  • Do not participate in any strenuous activities for 48 hours.
  • Do not fly in any private or commercial aircraft for at least 24 hours