Decompression sickness (abbreviated DCS; also called divers' disease, the bends, aerobullosis, and caisson disease) is a medical condition caused by dissolved gases emerging from solution as bubbles inside the body tissues during decompression. DCS most commonly occurs during or soon after a decompression ascent from underwater diving, but can also result from other causes of depressurisation, such as emerging from a caisson, decompression from saturation, flying in an unpressurised aircraft at high altitude, and extravehicular activity from spacecraft. DCS and arterial gas embolism are collectively referred to as decompression illness.
Since bubbles can form in or migrate to any part of the body, DCS can produce many symptoms, and its effects may vary from joint pain and rashes to paralysis and death. DCS often causes air bubbles to settle in major joints like knees or elbows, causing individuals to bend over in excruciating pain, hence its common name, the bends. Individual susceptibility can vary from day to day, and different individuals under the same conditions may be affected differently or not at all. The classification of types of DCS according to symptoms has evolved since its original description in the 19th century. The severity of symptoms varies from barely noticeable to rapidly fatal.
Decompression sickness can occur after an exposure to increased pressure while breathing a gas with a metabolically inert component, then decompressing too fast for it to be harmlessly eliminated through respiration, or by decompression by an upward excursion from a condition of saturation by the inert breathing gas components, or by a combination of these routes. Decompression risk is controlled by the tissue compartment with the highest inert gas concentration, which for decompression from saturation is the slowest tissue to outgas.
The risk of DCS can be managed through proper decompression procedures, and contracting the condition has become uncommon. Its potential severity has driven much research to prevent it, and divers almost universally use decompression schedules or dive computers to limit their exposure and to monitor their ascent speed. If DCS is suspected, it is treated by hyperbaric oxygen therapy in a recompression chamber. Where a chamber is not accessible within a reasonable time frame, in-water recompression may be indicated for a narrow range of presentations, if there are suitably skilled personnel and appropriate equipment available on site. Diagnosis is confirmed by a positive response to the treatment. Early treatment results in a significantly higher chance of successful recovery.
Decompression sickness caused by a decompression from saturation can occur in decompression or upward excursions from saturation diving, ascent to high altitudes, and extravehicular activities in space. Treatment is recompression, and oxygen therapy.