Decompression sickness (DCS), also known as diver's disease, aerobullosis, the bends or caisson disease, is an uncommon diving-related decompression illness that is an acute neurological emergency typically occurring in deep sea divers.
Decompression sickness can be further clinically subdivided into:
- mild symptoms: arthralgia, skin marbling, small patchy hemorrhages, and lymphatic obstruction
- serious and life-threatening symptoms: affecting the brain, spinal cord, inner ear, and/or lung
Nitrogen gas bubbles can cause neurovascular infarction of the brain and spinal cord leading to neurological deficit. There are various theories to explain this, which hypothesize between arterial occlusion, venous infarction and cellular nitrogen toxicity.
The white matter tracts of the spinal cord and brain are predominantly affected due to their high myelin content 3. Cord lesions are more common than brain lesions. In the spinal cord, there is a predilection for the thoracic cord segments to be affected, thought to be secondary to more nitrogen accumulating in the lateral and posterior columns where there is higher fat content and also the relatively low blood flow compared to the cervical and lumbar segments.
Radiological changes are seen in early stages in MRI, but have very low specificity. The affected white matter may show ischemic lesions or the bubbles themselves. There may also be an accumulation of nitrogen bubbles in marrow fat.
Normal MRI of the cord does not rule out the diagnosis 3. If there are MRI findings, these tend to normalize after a few weeks.
Treatment and prognosis
- hyperbaric oxygen on site and during transportation followed by treatment in a recompression chamber
The quicker treatment begins, the higher the chance of successful recovery.
History and etymology
A caisson is a watertight container used in underwater construction work.
The bends refers to the joint pain associated with the disease
- 1. Phatak UA, David EJ, Kulkarni PM. Decompression syndrome (Caisson disease) in an Indian diver. Ann Indian Acad Neurol. 2010;13 (3): 202-3. Ann Indian Acad Neurol (full text) - doi:10.4103/0972-2327.70868 - Free text at pubmed - Pubmed citation
- 2. Bishop MC, Boldero JL. Bone infarction not associated with Caisson disease: a case report. Br J Radiol. 1973;46 (542): 139-42. Br J Radiol (citation) - doi:10.1259/0007-1285-46-542-139 - Pubmed citation
- 3. Kamtchum Tatuene J, Pignel R, Pollak P et-al. Neuroimaging of diving-related decompression illness: current knowledge and perspectives. AJNR Am J Neuroradiol. 2014;35 (11): 2039-44. doi:10.3174/ajnr.A4005 - Pubmed citation