• Biology

Terrible Things That Happen to Your Body When You Get the Bends

You probably know something about the dangers of scuba diving: drowning, shark attacks, boating accidents... But there's one problem that's more common than the others, and it doesn't hit until you're already out of the water. That problem is decompression sickness, or as it's more commonly known, "the bends." It can cause fatigue, pain, and even in some rare cases, death, But what exactly is this strange and serious health problem, and why does it hit you the way it does?

The first thing you need to know is that the bends is that it happens when you surface too quickly. That shouldn't be a big deal, right? Well, it may sound like a small mistake, but it actually sets off a chain reaction of pain and havoc throughout your blood and joints. In fact, what happens to your body when you get the bends is as fascinating as it is frightening. Spoiler alert: you're going to cringe at some of this.

So before you go scuba diving, it's time for us to give you a little lesson on why surfacing slowly is more important than you ever would have guessed. 

  • You'll Feel Very, Very Tired

    Photo: happy via / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    So, as this is happening inside you, how are you going to start feeling on the outside? For starters, you're going to feel pretty tired. Like, really, really tired. This can be deceptive, because after scuba diving, you're bound to feel a little exhausted from swimming. However, you might suddenly feel extremely sleepy, or unusually sluggish to the point where you or others are concerned.

    Even if you don't notice this symptom, because you're already tired for whatever reason, the next symptom is going to tell you right away that something is wrong.

  • Your Joints Will Start to Ache, and Nothing You Can Do Will Relieve the Pain

    Photo: ToddonFlickr / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    This is by far the most common symptom of the bends, with 89% of people experiencing joint pain. The nitrogen bubbles in your body can collect near your joints, putting pressure on your limbs and cutting off blood flow from areas that need it. It is likely to start as a dull ache, then increase with intensity over time, and you'll have trouble locating exactly where the source of the pain is. You'll likely want to hold the joint tightly or squeeze it, as this will relieve some of the pressure, but that won't stop it. It will get worse, no matter if you're still, moving, lying down, or standing up. At this point, it's definitely hospital time. 

  • Traveling on a Plane Can Make It Much Worse

    Photo: miamism / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    It is always recommended that divers not fly directly after a dive, and there's a good reason for that. If a plane is not fully pressurized, then harmful nitrogen bubbles can form in the blood and tissue, even if there was no problem while you were on the ground! The change in pressure and altitude is enough that decompression sickness can jumpstart, even on short flights. Also, if you already have minor decompression sickness, this is bound to make it infinitely worse. 

  • You'll Start to Feel Dizzy and Nauseated, and May Even Go Deaf

    If you've ever had vertigo before, you know that it's a pretty difficult feeling to forget. You feel nauseated, dizzy, unable to walk a straight line, and there's nothing you can really do to alleviate the symptoms. Well, when you get the bends, pretty much the same thing happens, even in very mild cases. You might also start hearing a ringing in your ears, and you'll stagger as you try to walk. The ringing and dizziness can be so severe that you may temporarily lose your sense of hearing. Even if you get to a hospital for treatment, dizziness may still linger for a while during your recovery.