Decompression Illness

Decompression Illness, or DCI, is a term used to describe two main conditions: Decompression Sickness (DCS) and Arterial Gas Embolism (AGE). However, it can sometimes also be known as: The Bends, Caisson Disease, or Diving Accidents.


The London Hyperbaric unit at Whipps Cross Hospital and the East of England Hyperbaric unit at James Paget Hospital have 24/7 Consultant Anaesthetist cover to treat such cases. Speak directly to one of our consultants now on our 24/7 hotlines:

BartsHealth Hyperbaric Unit,

07999 292 999

James Paget University Hospital,
Great Yarmouth

01493 603 151

Diving Accidents can happen to any diver. Whether because of a minor equipment failure, or environmental factors, even sometimes for no reason whatsoever.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a novice or a pro, or how easy the dive was. You should always pay attention to your health and any symptoms that indicate something isn’t quite right.

Understanding the symptoms and causes of Decompression Illness (DCI), and knowing who you can turn to for advice and treatment, will help you safely enjoy diving.

Signs and Symptoms

Altered consciousness, balance and coordination problems, memory problems, headache, nausea and vomiting, vertigo, numbness and tingling, joint pain, unusual fatigue, paralysis, skin rashes, difficulty walking/standing, muscular weakness, difficulty urinating, difficulty breathing.

What Causes Decompression Sickness?

When we breathe in an environment with increased atmospheric pressure, our lungs absorb more nitrogen into the bloodstream than usual. Because our bodies don’t use, or metabolise, the nitrogen it remains in the system until it can be expelled when we breathe out.

Divers experience increasing pressure the deeper they reach and, conversely, the pressure reduces and returns to a normal level as they ascend. If excess nitrogen remains in the system after the pressure has returned to normal, it can form into bubbles in the blood or body tissues.

These bubbles are the cause of Decompression Illness, and the reason why divers are taught to ascend gradually. Ascending gradually gives the body a chance to expel as much of the excess nitrogen as possible.

Effects differ from person to person but varying predisposing factors are thought to heavily contribute to DCI even with correct procedures. Breath holding and air trapping in the lungs during ascent or decompression may also lead to DCI as well as some heart defects.

After Diving

As the symptoms for DCI are so diverse, any symptom that cannot be readily explained after diving, or other hyperbaric exposure, should be assumed to be DCI until proven otherwise.

Decompression Illness (DCI) Treatment

Put simply, treating Decompression Illness involves recompressing the patient in one of our safe, comfortable Hyperbaric Chambers until the atmospheric pressure inside the chamber matches the pressure experienced when diving and bubbles are reabsorbed into the blood.

The pressure inside the chamber is then very gradually restored to normal, simulating a safe diving ascent, allowing the body time to eliminate the gases that had formed bubbles.

Staffed by a team of experienced and highly motivated doctors, supervisors, nurses and attendants, our facilities have unrivalled experience in the treatment of conditions relating to diving accidents and recognising the signs and symptoms.


Divers and clinicians can phone our helpline 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, if they suspect they or their buddy may be affected by Decompression Illness.

If you are simply not sure, it is better to be safe than sorry and you should call our friendly, knowledgeable staff without delay.

  • 07999 292 999

    Divers Emergency Service

Often, treatment in a hyperbaric chamber isn’t necessary. However, if our diving doctors recommend it and you are in our catchment area we can also provide treatment at our facilities in East London and Great Yarmouth.

We are members of the British Hyperbaric Association. So if you are outside our catchment area, or there is another hyperbaric chamber closer to you, we can connect you with a network of other chambers throughout the UK.