Skip to main navigation Skip to main content Skip to footer For Medicare For Providers For Brokers For Employers Español For Individuals & Families: For Individuals & Families Medical Dental Other Supplemental Explore coverage through work How to Buy Health Insurance Types of Dental Insurance Open Enrollment vs. Special Enrollment See all topics Shop for Medicare plans Member Guide Find a Doctor Log in to myCigna
Home Knowledge Center Wellness Library Pressure Injuries From Scuba Diving

Pressure Injuries From Scuba Diving

Condition Basics

What are pressure injuries from scuba diving?

Scuba diving can expose you to high waves and dangerous sea life. But the more likely dangers are those you can't see. You can be injured if your body isn't able to adjust to the increasing and decreasing pressure of the water as you breathe compressed air. Pressure changes can cause injuries when you drop down into the water (descend) and come back up (ascend).

Scuba injuries may be mild. But in some cases, they can cause serious problems or even death.

Types of pressure injuries

There are three kinds of injuries from pressure changes when diving:

Tissues near the air-filled spaces of your body—such as your ears, sinuses, dental roots, and lungs—can be damaged if your body can't equalize the pressure between it and the surrounding water. This kind of injury is called barotrauma. As you descend, water pressure increases, and the volume of air in your body decreases. This can cause problems such as sinus pain or a ruptured eardrum. As you ascend, water pressure decreases, and the air in your lungs expands. This can make the air sacs in your lungs rupture and make it hard for you to breathe. If air bubbles get into an artery, they can cause a blockage that affects your organs. The blockage is called an arterial gas embolism. Depending on where the bubbles are, you could have a heart attack or a stroke.
Decompression sickness.
Often called "the bends," decompression sickness happens when a scuba diver ascends too quickly. Divers breathe compressed air that contains nitrogen. At higher pressure under water, the nitrogen gas goes into the body's tissues. This doesn't cause a problem when a diver is down in the water. And if a diver rises to the surface (decompresses) at the right rate, the nitrogen can slowly and safely leave the body through the lungs. But if a diver rises too quickly, the nitrogen forms bubbles in the body. This can cause tissue and nerve damage. In extreme cases, it can cause paralysis or death if the bubbles are in the brain.
Nitrogen narcosis.
Deep dives can cause so much nitrogen to build up in the brain that you can become confused and act as though you've been drinking alcohol. You might make poor decisions, such as taking out your regulator because you think you can breathe underwater. Narcosis usually happens only on dives of more than 100 feet.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of scuba diving injuries can appear throughout your body. Some are mild, while others are more serious and need treatment right away.

Mild symptoms can include:

  • Pain in your ears, sinuses, or teeth.
  • Itching.
  • Joint pain.
  • Extreme fatigue.

Severe symptoms can include:

  • Numbness and tingling in your arms and legs.
  • Dizziness.
  • Trouble breathing.
  • Staggering or other trouble walking.
  • Trouble seeing.
  • Confusion.
  • Chest pain.
  • Passing out (losing consciousness).

Symptoms can show up right after you come to the surface. Or they may not appear for several hours, especially if you fly in an airplane too soon after diving.

Get emergency help if you have any symptoms of scuba injuries, even if they seem minor. It's easy to ignore joint pain and explain it away. But it could be a sign of illness. Sometimes the symptoms go away, but they can come back and get worse.

How are pressure injuries from scuba diving treated?

Treatment may depend on the type of injury.

The main treatment for decompression sickness is time in a hyperbaric chamber. In the chamber, you're exposed to increasing air pressure, like the high pressure underwater. The pressure is slowly reduced, as though you're coming up from underwater. Treatment in a chamber usually works best if it's done as soon as possible.

Most divers who have decompression sickness also get pure oxygen right away after they have symptoms.

If you have a barotrauma injury, treatment depends on what part of your body has been injured. For example, if you have a broken eardrum, you may be given antibiotics while your eardrum heals if you have signs of an ear infection. You also might get nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or corticosteroids to help reduce swelling.

If you have nitrogen narcosis, it often gets better on its own when you reach the surface.

How can you prevent them?

The best way to prevent scuba diving injuries is to make sure that you have proper training and are healthy enough to dive. In diving classes, you also will learn how to clear your ears to prevent pain and injury as you descend. Diving instructors can tell you how to use dive tables or computers that show how fast you should ascend and how many stops you should make while ascending.

Air travel too soon after diving can increase the risk of decompression sickness. The time you need to wait to fly depends on how much time has passed between your last dive and flying, and on how many dives you have made over a certain amount of time. Look at your dive manual to find out how long you need to wait before you fly.

You need to wait at least 18 hours or more if you made several dives a day or you dove for several days.

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated, disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. Learn how we develop our content.

© 1995-2024 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.

Related Links

Marine Stings and Scrapes

<cipublic-spinner variant="large"><span>Loading…</span></cipublic-spinner>

Page Footer

I want to...

Get an ID card File a claim View my claims and EOBs Check coverage under my plan See prescription drug list Find an in-network doctor, dentist, or facility Find a form Find 1095-B tax form information View the Cigna Glossary Contact Cigna


Individuals and Families Medicare Employers Brokers Providers

Secure Member Sites

myCigna member portal Health Care Provider portal Cigna for Employers Client Resource Portal Cigna for Brokers

The Cigna Group Information

About Cigna Healthcare Company Profile Careers Newsroom Investors Suppliers The Cigna Group Third Party Administrators International Evernorth

 Cigna. All rights reserved.

Privacy Legal Product Disclosures Cigna Company Names Customer Rights Accessibility Non-Discrimination Notice Language Assistance [PDF] Report Fraud Sitemap Cookie Settings


Individual and family medical and dental insurance plans are insured by Cigna Health and Life Insurance Company (CHLIC), Cigna HealthCare of Arizona, Inc., Cigna HealthCare of Illinois, Inc., Cigna HealthCare of Georgia, Inc., Cigna HealthCare of North Carolina, Inc., Cigna HealthCare of South Carolina, Inc., and Cigna HealthCare of Texas, Inc. Group health insurance and health benefit plans are insured or administered by CHLIC, Connecticut General Life Insurance Company (CGLIC), or their affiliates (see a listing of the legal entities that insure or administer group HMO, dental HMO, and other products or services in your state). Accidental Injury, Critical Illness, and Hospital Care plans or insurance policies are distributed exclusively by or through operating subsidiaries of Cigna Corporation, are administered by Cigna Health and Life Insurance Company, and are insured by either (i) Cigna Health and Life Insurance Company (Bloomfield, CT); (ii) Life Insurance Company of North America (“LINA”) (Philadelphia, PA); or (iii) New York Life Group Insurance Company of NY (“NYLGICNY”) (New York, NY), formerly known as Cigna Life Insurance Company of New York. The Cigna name, logo, and other Cigna marks are owned by Cigna Intellectual Property, Inc. LINA and NYLGICNY are not affiliates of Cigna.

All insurance policies and group benefit plans contain exclusions and limitations. For availability, costs and complete details of coverage, contact a licensed agent or Cigna sales representative. This website is not intended for residents of New Mexico.

Selecting these links will take you away from to another website, which may be a non-Cigna website. Cigna may not control the content or links of non-Cigna websites. Details