Can the bends kill you when you’re scuba diving? Please read on to find out

Can You Die From The Bends - Dysbarism Treatment

When I wrote my more recent article on “what is it called when a diver comes up too fast,” I saw that people also ask “can you die from the bends” too.


Can you die from the bends or can decompression sickness kill you? Yes in extreme cases of the bends or decompression sickness it can kill you. As explained below when a National Geographic diver lost his life diving to a depth of 122 metres (400 feet), whilst filming the wreck HMHS Britannic in Greece.


What is 'the bends' in scuba diving

Before explaining the most serious consequence of 'The Bends,' I first want to explain what 'the bends' is, for those that are not sure.

The bends, which is also known as decompression sickness (DCS) or Caisson disease, occurs in scuba divers. It can also occur in high altitude or aerospace events too.

The bends occurs when dissolved gases come out of solution in the form of bubbles. These gases, which is mostly nitrogen, will have dissolved into a diver's tissues whilst scuba diving at depth. The reason depth is important is that at depth the water pressure is greater.

The deeper you dive the greater the risk of the bends

Plus, the deeper you dive, the greater the water pressure. The higher the pressure, the more nitrogen gas will be dissolved into the tissues, which is referred to as 'On-gassing.'

The bends occurs on ascent, as the water pressure decreases. During the ascent, and as the water pressure reduces, these gases (i.e. nitrogen) slowly leaves the tissues (also known as 'Off-gassing') .

But if this ascent is too fast, instead of the nitrogen leaving safely and slowly, it instead forms tiny bubbles. It's these tiny bubbles that can lead to the bends. And it's the bends that can have dire consequences for you...see below.

As a consequence of the phenomenon known as 'The Bends,' the deeper the dive, the greater the risk of the bends on the ascent. The deeper you go the bigger the uptake of nitrogen, which is added to the fact that there will be a larger change in pressure between the depth of the dive and the surface.

But this only becomes a problem if the ascent is faster than it should be, or where any required decompression stops are missed.

In other words, if you dive using safe diving practices, you are unlikely to ever suffer from the bends. Having said that there are a number of decompression sickness risk factors you should be aware of before you embark on scuba diving.

The bends can affect almost any part of the body, which includes minor skin bends, joints, lungs, heart, brain and the spinal cord.

Depending on the severity of decompression sickness, which part of the body is affected and the speed of treatment, will all impact on the casualty's final fate.

Can you die from the bends?

Can you die from the bends

The bends or decompression sickness, which is also referred to medically as Dysbarism. Dysbarism includes a multitude of symptoms that accompany exposure to excessively rapid changes to environmental pressures. These pressure changes can be either underwater or in air.

Dysbarism refers to a medical condition, which results from changes in ambient pressure. There are various activities that are associated with pressure changes, but underwater diving is the most frequently cited example.

But decompression sickness isn't the only type of Dysbarism, it also includes arterial gas embolisms (AGE), and barotraumas. This can be as minor as a facial barotrauma, which can be caused as a result of mask squeeze.

As a trained scuba diver, and having dived for nearly 30 years, I know that decompression sickness or the bends can have serious consequences. The most serious of all consequences of the bends is death.

Fortunately I've not experienced decompression sickness myself, but I've been deep diving, i.e. 50+ metres (164 feet+), when my colleagues have experienced a skin bend.

An eample of a scuba diver dying from the bends

Interestingly, when I typed this question into Google, up pops an article in the Telegraph Newspaper from back in 2009.

This article is about Carl Spencer who died as a consequence of decompression sickness.

"A Super Puma rescue helicopter was dispatched to collect the diver who was unconscious with decompression sickness symptoms, he did not regain consciousness and was pronounced dead on arrival at the Athens Navy hospital."

The Telegraph Newspaper - National Geographic diver dies from 'the bends' while filming in Greece

Carl Spencer was a National Geographic diver. He died as a consequence of the bends or decompression sickness in Greece, whilst filming as part of a 17-member crew. They were filming the wreck of a British World War I hospital ship HMHS Britannic.

The sister ship of the Titanic, HMHS Britannic sank off the Greek Aegean island of Kea in 1916. This World War I ship sank after hitting a mine, with the loss of 30 lives. Sadly Spencer's scuba diving death added to the death-toll of this sunken shipwreck.

The HMHS Britannic wreck is considered a deep dive

A dive is considered a deep dive when it's in excess of around 18-20 metres (60-66 feet).

The HMHS Britiannic sits at around 122 metres (400 feet). 122 metres would be considered a seriously deep dive for most, if not all recreational scuba divers.

For any scuba diver to dive this deep, they not only need to be very experienced, but also they need to be a technical diver too.

Dysbarism treatment or the treatment for the bends

If you or one of your colleagues are unfortunate enough to be affected by the bends, you need to seek medical treatment urgently.

Dysbarism treatment or what is required treatment for the bends, prior to hospital care includes the following:

  • Firstly extricate the diver from the water as soon as possible.
  • Next immobilise the patient where trauma is suspected.
  • For most and in general, 'in-water recompression' is not believed to be a safe option.
  • Which means extract (ideally by helicopter, as happened in the above case in Greece) the patience to the nearest hospital or hyperbaric chamber.
  • Also, the casualty must have immediate 100% oxygen, intubate if necessary.
  • Intravenously administer a saline drip (this treatment unlikely if you're not medically trained or on a dive boat, but worth mentioning).

More Reading: What should you not do after scuba diving (11 must NOT do’s after diving)

I hope you enjoyed this article about can you die from the bends

I’d love to hear from you. Tell us about your adventures of diving and snorkeling, in the comments below. Please also share your photos. Either from your underwater cameras or videos from your waterproof Gopro’s!

If this article hasn’t answered all of your questions. If you have more questions either about snorkeling or types of scuba diving (or specifically about can you die from the bends), please comment below with your questions.

There will also be many more articles about scuba diving (and snorkeling) for you to read and learn about these fabulous sports.

Have fun and be safe!


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