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Decompression sickness (DCS) is a rare condition that can occur in deep sea divers, aviators, miners, astronauts, mountain climbers or people who work at high or low altitudes. It often occurs as people return quickly to a normal altitude from these heights or depths. Divers using compressed air are at particular risk for decompression sickness, especially if they come to the surface too quickly: Those who are older, heavier, or less physically-active have a higher risk of experiencing DCS.
DCS happens when bubbles of nitrogen and other gases form in the bloodstream. The bubbles can cause dangerous symptoms throughout the body. The most common symptom is extreme, crippling joint pain at the shoulders, knees, elbows and ankles. This pain is often referred to as "the bends."
People with DCS may have:
- extreme fatigue
- ringing in the ears
- visual problems
- chest pain
- shortness of breath
- skin rash
Warning signs may include:
- coughing up blood
In rare cases, people with DCS can go into shock and die if not treated.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is the primary treatment for DCS. It immediately reduces the amount of bubbles in the bloodstream, fills the tissues with oxygen and reduces dangerous swelling.
In most instances, it's critical to get treatment as soon as possible, because the symptoms of DCS can be life-threatening. Even if your symptoms disappear when you return to a normal altitude, you should still seek medical attention and possibly receive the therapy to prevent long-term damage.