What Are The Bends and How to Prevent Them

Last Updated: March 15, 2023

Experiencing the beautiful aquamarine life underwater in azure and ethereal waters is the major pull of scuba diving. A recreational sport that has become very popular, especially in tourist destinations.

With its beauty, adrenaline rush, and pure fun, it is not without its perils though. You could be a natural prey to some of the marine life forms present underwater. Limited support of lifeline in deep waters has its own risks of anxiety, breathing issues, and more.

While there are several risks, the most common one is ‘the bends’ or decompression sickness.

What Are The Bends?

the bends in diving

Bends are the doubling up of joints. They make you bend over because of the excruciating pain. Bends are what your underwater body ache is called. They occur due to the rapid rise in pressure.

When oxygen levels become insufficient, and there is a build-up of nitrogen in your muscles, tissues, joints, blood, or organs, the body becomes destabilized. As you go deeper and deeper into the sea, the pressure rises and causes your body to release nitrogen bubbles. The release of nitrogen can increase the toxicity in your body and cause pain to unbearable levels. This causes bends.

This is also called Caisson sickness, decompression sickness, or diver’s disease.

Why is it Called The Bends?

As we said, bends are caused due to the release of nitrogen bubbles in various parts of the body. These bubbles lead to numbness and soreness in the joints and make you prone to paralysis.

When underwater, as the pressure increases and nitrogen levels become high in your body, the body convulses and causes severe pain. This can often lead to paralysis, speech defects, numbness, personality changes, muscle coordination difficulties, and many more symptoms.

Predominantly, the rise in nitrogen bubbles in your body causes severe body ache and restricts your mobility. That is why this syndrome is called bends. Because you become physically unable to straighten out your joints underwater.

Common Symptoms of Decompression Sickness

Decompression Sickness is your body succumbing to the high pressure of water while diving. This causes you to get the bends. Some symptoms of decompression sickness include

  • Fatigue
  • Skin irritation
  • Vertigo
  • Headache
  • Joint pain
  • Chokes
  • Chest pain
  • Burning sensation while breathing

The most prominent symptom of decompression sickness is the joint pain caused due to the build-up of nitrogen bubbles in your body. That is why decompression illness is commonly diagnosed as bends.

Can You Get The Bends Freediving or Snorkeling?

Free diving is a recreational activity that takes place without the use of aqualungs or oxygen tanks. A freediver will use a snorkeling mask, fins, and breath-hold.

It is very unlikely that you get bends when snorkeling or freediving. But, if you hold your breath for too long and dive deeper than 85 feet, you are prone to nitrogen build-up. Even while you freedive, you need to check your limitations for holding your breath. Otherwise, nitrogen narcosis can cause an extreme case of bends and can prove to be fatal.

Could Divers Avoid The Bends By Filling Their Scuba Tank With Pure Oxygen?

A scuba divers’ oxygen tank is mostly filled only with 20.9% pure oxygen. While pure oxygen is given as first aid to a diver experiencing bends, the diver should not carry a pure oxygen tank while diving.

The diver faces the possibility of oxygen toxicity if they have a pure oxygen tank without the necessary equipment. Scuba divers, especially in tourist spots, are not entirely aware of the gear and handling required for a pure oxygen tank. Pure oxygen needs to be released extremely slowly and gradually to prevent explosions and oxygen toxicity.

How to Prevent the Bends

how to prevent the bends

While bends are dangerous and can prove very painful and often prove to be fatal, they can be prevented. Prevention is always better than cure. Here are a couple of things to keep in mind to prevent getting bends:

  • Do not consume alcohol or tobacco before or immediately after diving.
  • Avoid flying immediately after diving.
  • Consult a physician and complete all health check-ups before seeking adventure.
  • Do not exercise for 12 hours before diving.
  • Try not to test your limits especially, if you are a beginner.
  • Follow the instructions of your diving guide carefully.
  • Take a satety stop every 5 meters for 3 minutes to make your nitrogen levels go down.
  • Practice meditation regularly in your daily life to increase your lung capacity.
  • Hydrate yourself before and after the dive.
  • Do not dive if you are dehydrated.
  • Try not to come up too fast. Be gradual and slow to avoid the pressure from rising fast.
  • Normal breathing is advisable while underwater.
  • Avoid diving in extremely cold water.
  • Make sure your cardiovascular fitness is at an optimum level.

If you are a heart patient with a hole in the heart or a patient with various pulmonary issues, kindly consult with your doctor before going to scuba dive or freedive.

As a diabetic, your sugar levels are bound to rise in a high-pressure environment, consult your diabetologist to know your limitations and preventive measures. Hypertension, asthma, lung issues are all medical issues that make you prone to the bends while scuba diving. Take utmost care if you are a medical patient. It is advisable to completely skip diving if you have a hernia. Hernia has expanding gas that causes the symptoms of bends to worsen.


Bends can be treated using first aid pure oxygen as soon as the symptoms occur. This is 2-3 hours after diving. Often, the symptoms take 2-3 days to show up. In this case, a hyperbaric chamber with oxygen-given high pressured chambers can help relieve the symptoms. Consult your doctor as soon as you see symptoms.

Bends are painful and can cause long-term effects, follow the tips mentioned here to prevent it altogether. Safe diving practices will go a long way in preventing any form of sickness.

Sharing is caring!