Recognising Decompression sickness is important, often a diver will wait to see if the symptoms go away and in so doing the seriousness of the situation is allowed to increase.

Often a diver will wonder if they have decompression sickness, surfacing after diving, and experiencing a headache or discomfort in a muscle or joint.

The following symptoms and situations may assist in recognising what may actually be decompression sickness.

Analysis of the diving reports list pain as being the first indicator of decompression illness, in itself this is the reason why the decision to seek help is delayed as often divers will experience discomfort as a result of using muscles they are unused to working.

Generally pain from using un-worked muscles disappears when the diver finds a position where discomfort is relieved, like sitting with their arms on a table for example.

What to look for:


  • It can occur at anytime from within a few minutes to hours after the dive.
  • The pain is usually constant and does not change with movement.
  • Often the pain will start in a hand or wrist, expanding to the forearm or shoulder in the same limb.
  • It may be disproportionate to the exertion expended in the course of the dive.
  • Divers will often describe the pain as being different to any pain previously experienced.
  • There are no signs of trauma such as redness or broken skin at the site of the pain.
  • There may well be no history of injury or recent trauma in that location.

The fact that the symptoms can display gradual onset, leading scuba divers to self-medicate as well as rehydrate with their favourite beverage, results in further delays in seeking help.


This is the tingling and numbness, or ‘pins and needles’, which is the most common symptom of decompression illness described by sufferers. Often the lack of sensation is too subtle to be noticed particularly.

It is also associated with more serious symptoms such as weakness in one or both legs.

There are few causes for Paresthesia which cause the symptom as quickly as decompression illness.

Other causes for the problem can be hyperventilation from anxiety, carpel tunnel syndrome and spinal nerve impingement may also be causes of the Paresthesia and are not related to decompression illness.

Balance difficulties

Balance and walking difficulties represent a very serious aspect of decompression illness although a rare side effect. It is more likely to be barotrauma to the middle ear. In instances of this a medical practitioner should be consulted anyway.

Walking difficulties should be treated very seriously as it may indicate spinal cord involvement.

Oxygen treatment is only the first step

While the symptoms of decompression sickness may be resolved by initial treatment by administering oxygen, it is likely they will recur.

Recompression treatment is usually required to reverse the effects of the decompression sickness. Oxygen treatment is correct and the initial part of first aid treatment. In the hands of medical professionals, intravenous fluids and oxygen will be supplied whilst medically supervised transport is arranged at the same time as a professional evaluation of the requirements for proper long term and effective treatment.

Respiratory difficulties

The difficulty in associating breathing problems with decompression illness is that the symptom itself may be a part of quite a few other medical issues.

Chest pain, chest burning and chest pressure may well be as a result of decompression illness, they may also be as a result of strain while underwater, lack of fitness, previous medical condition or the onset of a heart problem due to exertion.

In instances like this it is not worth taking a chance, a medical professional will be able to assess the circumstances surrounding the dive as well as medical history.

  • Call medical assistance early if you are a diver with symptoms.
  • Research to improve your knowledge and consider taking courses.
  • Be aware that you can be fooled by symptoms.
  • Oxygen will fulfil the role of a short term answer to relieve the immediate work stress on the lungs.
  • Oxygen may only slow the onset of a more serious medical condition, be aware of this and seek medical assistance.

The rule of thumb should be to rather seek assistance and advice from a medical professional, and find you didn’t need it, than the other way around and end up with a serious and possibly permanent problem on your hands!

For more information on diving issues like Decompression sickness, click here

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