But what about The Bends?!?!?! Asks every newish diver. Every magazine, every message board, every social media group… from the brandest-new newbs through Instructors and much of the technical diving world… DCS seems to be one of the greatest dreads of diving. Why? You know how rare a dangerous case of DCS actually is? In the 2019 DAN Annual Report (covering incidents and accidents from 2017) the number of total reported DCS incidents worked out to about 3 in 10,000 dives. Of the 29 total diving fatalities where an autopsy report was available that year: 1 person was reportedly killed by DCS. How many dives do you suppose happen over the course of a year worldwide? Hundreds of thousands? Millions? And 1 person died of DCS. Only 3/10,000 were even reported. That “reported” number is probably higher. There’s still some stupid stigma about DCS, so people don’t report. Or they hide it. Or they don’t even think much about how their skin gets blotchy and itchy when they get straight into the liveaboard hot-tub after their fourth dive of the day, thinking it sea-lice or something, and not an obviously mild case of skin bends. And, besides, it goes away by dinner anyway, so who cares? Despite the likely higher rate of incident than reported, historically it doesn’t appear that The Dreaded Bends is a vicious, man-eating lion, waiting for us all in the long grass as divers. This is not to dismiss DCS as a danger. You really shouldn’t get right in the hot tub. You still need to ascend slowly. Don’t get right on an airplane. Stay within your NDLs unless you’ve been trained on how to plan and execute staged decompression dives. But these are all pretty easy rules to follow. And, following them, the likelihood of your getting bent is pretty damned low. I’ve been bent. A few times. Skin bends twice and my elbow hurt for a little while once. Skin bends both happened after extremely long/deep dives (below 300’ with hours and hours of deco) when I was bored, tired, cold, and wanted to go home, so I rushed as soon as I hit the surface to get all my shit loaded in the car. Which is a mistake. Would have been far wiser to bob on the surface for 1/2 hour or so and relax before moving lots of heavy stuff around. Achey elbow was after days and days of deep (~200’) dives in freezing fucking cold water. And I had not dialled down my Gradient Factors from my normal, not-freezing fucking cold water numbers. I breathed O2 for about an hour while I watched a movie. It went away. I didn’t dive for a few days afterwards. This has been in thousands and thousands of dives. Lot of that with quite a bit of deco involved. And I have a lot of friends who also have thousands and thousands of dives, with similar or even more deco involved. With similar experience. Which is to say: DCS is not really the thing you need to be quaking in your boots about the most. So… again… why? Why is it that every diver wants to talk about it or worry about it or obsess about what if? Is it the esoteric nature of it? That we, alone, as divers are susceptible to such a malady? Is it, perhaps, the true mystery of it? That literally the best minds in the world, who spend a lifetime studying decompression theory, science, and medicine still don’t fully understand the mechanism of the affliction? To say nothing of a newly-minted OW diver who barely understands the importance of snorkel colour, much less significance of M-Values. Or some combination of these factors? Which does make it seem like DCS is out there in the long grass, waiting to pounce, unexpectedly, on any one of us at any time? It’s not. Yes, there is such a thing as “undeserved hits,” when someone with a PFO or a pulmonary shunt might suffer symptoms of DCS of varying severity after even the most benign-seeming dives. But those examples are crazy-rare. Yes, there is such a thing as “explosive decompression” (note: you do not actually explode… not exactly) when people who have gone VERY deep for VERY long come up WAY too fast or omit WAY too much deco. But these are extreme cases and, by and large, predictable from the dive profile. There are much better things to concern ourselves with as divers: - Properly configured and working equipment. - Good gas planning and monitoring protocols. - The dangers of peer-pressure or normalisation of deviance leading people into places they may not (yet) belong. - Good site understanding. - Surface behaviour to avoid getting drowned by a wave to the face or bludgeoned to death by your own dive boat. - Proper weighting and equipment balance. - Stress recognition and prevention for oneself and team.
- Emergency response including equipment failures, environmental stressors, and team breakdown.
- Buoyancy and trim being worth a shit so one doesn’t destroy the environment and/or visibility.
Lots and lots and lots of stuff that divers frequently struggle with dive after dive, day after day, year after year all over the world. Real-life annoyances that can, with only a very little urging and assistance, actually turn into major, life-threatening emergencies which can all be mitigated with a little shift in thinking or a little focused practice. Though it suddenly occurs to me: It’s a hell of a lot easy to tell ghost stories about the DCS boogey-man than to put in a lot of work to be good at the rest of that actually relevant stuff. And maybe that’s just it after all. “I might look like a hot mess riding a rolling dumpster fire… but at least I don’t get bent.” NOTE: If you do notice symptoms of DCS... report them to DAN. They'll give you some sound treatment advice, which is (except for those rare, life-threatening cases) unlikely to be, "You need to go to a chamber." It will probably be more like, "Hydrate, breathe oxygen, stop diving until you can talk to a doctor." Mostly do this to contribute to their data-set and get things closer to actual incident counts other than the obviously under-reported count.
Also: Stop the stupid stigma. It's a thing that happens. Sometimes it's because we've done something we shouldn't. Sometimes it isn't. Regardless... why should the be a stigma attached? You don't make fun of your friends for twisting their ankle, do you? Oh. You do? You're a dick.