What Happens Inside a Decompression Chamber?

decompression chamberDiving is an enjoyable activity and a passionate hobby for thousands of people. They take in views of colorful coral reefs and schools of bright fish. Many swim alongside dolphins, turtles, and even sharks. However, among the beauty and majesty of diving the oceans an invisible danger lurks, and it can be very serious if correct action is not taken in a timely manner.

This danger is commonly known as decompression illness, or “the bends.” This is caused by bubbles of nitrogen forming in the bloodstream, preventing proper blood flow and swelling in the joints. While decompression illness can vary greatly in symptoms and severity, it can be treated with periods of time spent in a decompression chamber.

Chambers in hospitals and other facilities on the land are large enough to accommodate a number of patients and a technician. Smaller chambers that only fit one or two divers are usually found on ships. Once a person is inside the chamber, air pressure is increased until it reaches the required simulated depth. As the pressure increases, it is recommended that the patient move their jaw or blow air through their nose in order to equalize inner ear pressures.

Once the atmospheric pressure is at the desired level it is slowly decreased. This simulates a gradual rise from the depth of a dive without the risk of a limited air supply. Pure oxygen is supplied through a mask or clear helmet during the entire treatment. The clear mask or helmet allows for reading or other visual activities during the hours long time in the chamber.

Inside view of a decompression chamber

Inside view of a decompression chamber

Inhaling pure oxygen under increased atmospheric pressure allows it to be more efficiently absorbed in the body. Oxygen is able to move into cells and areas of the body it would otherwise be unable to pass into. The gradual decrease also prevents nitrogen in the blood from forming bubbles and blocking the proper flow.

In recent years, it has been discovered that the benefits of time in a decompression chamber can extend beyond treatment for the bends. One such example is its current use to treat health conditions in people that have never been in water deeper than a swimming pool.

Images via U.S. Naval Forces Central Command/U.S. Fifth Fleetgordon.milligan


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