Denial, the joke goes, is not just a river in Egypt. But sometimes
it's the most experienced divers who are the first to shrug off
aches and pains as part of the dive life. Most of the time, that's
true. But sometimes it can lead to serious issues.
The problem, says Neal Pollock, Ph.D., former research director of
Divers Alert Network, is that people have such faith in their
computers and in their belief that if they do everything "right,"
then nothing can go wrong. "The first rule of dive-related injury is
it can happen to you, no matter how careful you are," Pollock says.
"You can minimize risk, but you can't eliminate it. So it's very
important to, of course, dive conservatively, but also listen to
your common sense and not brush off symptoms, because with many of
these conditions, when you wait, things only get worse."
Keep an eye out for these key symptoms after diving.
That said, we all know that it's common to feel a little "off"
during a dive trip. We get headaches. We get nauseated. We get
lightheaded. All pretty par for the course for a long day on the
water. How's a diver to know what's serious and what's standard
fare? If you remember nothing else, remember this, says Pollock:
"Any symptom that is unusual, new or intense deserves your
attention." So if you have a bum knee or chronic tennis elbow, it's
probably nothing if those joints flare up in a familiar way after a
long day of diving. But if they hurt more than usual or they hurt in
a new way, pay attention to it. If it continues nagging at you for
more than 15 or 20 minutes, consider it a symptom to be checked out.
Likewise, if a symptom shows up very shortly after surfacing, it
should raise suspicions, says Jake Freiberger, M.D., MPH, director
of Duke Dive Medicine. "Research shows 50 percent of symptoms appear
within 10 minutes of returning to one atmosphere, and only 15
percent of symptoms are delayed for more than one hour," he says.
Still not sure if those tingling fingertips are cause for concern?
Here are seven symptoms you should never ignore:
(i.e., confusion, dizziness, weakness)
DAN puts these at the top
of its list of symptoms you should worry about. These are signs that
you may have decompression sickness affecting your spinal cord or
brain, and that's considered serious and severe. Seek immediate
There are a few symptoms diver should never ignore.
Chest Pain, Breathing Difficulties, Hoarseness
Heart attack is one of the most common causes of death underwater.
If you have some undiagnosed heart-disease risks (like high blood
pressure and hardening of the arteries), the stress of diving can
overload your system and leave your heart without enough oxygen,
which brings on what we know as a heart attack. Never, ever ignore
chest pain before, during or after a dive. Even if your ticker is
running like a Timex, chest pain also may be a sign of another
serious event known as pulmonary barotrauma--literally lung damage
caused by over inflation of the lungs (usually caused by holding
your breath while ascending). The result is that air bubbles leak
out and enter the blood, which can cause pulmonary embolism or
arterial gas embolism, both very serious and potentially fatal
conditions. Again, seek medical help ASAP.
We're not talking about garden-variety gas here, but girdle- or
corset-like abdominal pain that hurts all the way around and comes
on within minutes of a dive. "This is the type of mild [but new and
unusual] symptom that comes on rapidly and that deserves attention,"
says Freiberger. "I would move rapidly to recompress a person with
this symptom because it's been associated with the development of
severe spinal cord involvement minutes to hours later." In other
words, that little something can turn into a big something if you
Joint pain can be easy to dismiss because you're moving your bones
through so many strange positions during a dive as you hoist heavy
tanks, climb ladders, shoulder overstuffed bags, and so on. "If you
have low-grade shoulder pain that feels better when you massage it,
it's probably OK," explains Pollock. "If you can't raise your arm
more than a few inches, that's a problem." As a rule of thumb, if it
hurts enough to compromise your physical abilities, get it checked.
(as a side symptom)
Your hands and feet can
tingle for lots of reasons. You got too cold. Your wetsuit
is too tight. They fell asleep while you were sitting in some
awkward position on a hard bench. But if you have tingling in your
skin along with other symptoms like numbness, weakness and
(obviously more seriously) paralysis anywhere, it can be a sign of
serious DCS or arterial gas embolism; take it seriously.
(as a side symptom)
Obviously, you don't want
to be running to the chamber every time you have a boomer behind
your eyes. Headaches are the dandelions of diving; you find them all
over the place and they're hard to completely resolve. But if your
throbbing head is accompanied by skin rash, joint pain, swelling,
itching, dizziness, nausea, tunnel vision, blind spots, weakness,
exhaustion or other troubling symptoms, it's likely DCS and needs
We're not fish, so our skin is bound to look a little funny when
we're done with a long day of being waterlogged. But anyone who's
soaked in the bathtub too long knows what that looks like. If you
have spotty skin discoloration, mottled or marbled-looking skin,
that's likely a skin hit. Skin bends are also accompanied by itching
or the feeling of little bugs crawling over you. Though minor skin
hits may not require treatment, more serious problems can pop up, so
it's important to be evaluated by a medical professional.
Finally, no list like this can be completely comprehensive. For
other symptoms not covered here, always refer to rule No. 1: If it's
unusual, new or intense, pay attention. A minor nosebleed or reverse
squeeze is a common occurrence. Crippling pain never is. Use your
head and stay safe.
Finger Lakes Scuba is a
division of Coral Reef Dive Adventures, Inc.