The Bends: An Excellent Radiohead Album and a Lung-Popping Condition You Do Not Want

Illustration for article titled The Bends: An Excellent Radiohead Album and a Lung-Popping Condition You Do Not Want

Decompression sickness, also known as the bends, is a bit of a mystery to doctors because it's not easy to study what's happening to human cells at super high pressures far below the sea surface.

Scientists at the Office of Naval Research and the Navy Experimental Diving Unit are especially interested in the bends because their divers go to depths of around 1,000 feet - recreational scuba divers typically go to around 30 feet. So the ONR and NEDU created an artificial extreme deep sea environment where they can perform studies at the molecular level. Other artificial hyperbaric environments exist, but none allow researchers to study exactly what happens to cells in the super deep sea.

The technology lets them use "patch clamping," which involves attaching electrodes to a cell membrane so scientists can monitor, stimulate and record ion channels across cells in a highly pressurized environment.

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Illustration for article titled The Bends: An Excellent Radiohead Album and a Lung-Popping Condition You Do Not Want

The military researchers hope the new tool will lead to new ways to prevent and treat decompression sickness, and nitrogen narcosis, which causes intoxication-like symptoms. But the general scuba diving population would benefit as well. Treatment for the bends now is straight oxygen, and prevention is rising to the surface slowly or taking decompression stops.

If like me you've always wondered what the hell the bends actually is, I just did the Googling for both of us. When you dive into deep water, your body experiences much greater pressure from the water than it does in regular air. And for air to come out of the tank that scuba divers breathe from, it has to be at the same pressure as the water. That means while diving, what you're inhaling is highly pressurized. While your body is under that same pressure, it's not a problem. But as you rise to the surface and the water pressure is reduced, nitrogen bubbles from the air respond to the reduced pressure by releasing into the blood and tissues of the body. It's kind of like when you try to open a can of soda that someone shook: do it fast and it sprays everywhere. Do it slowly and you might not get Mountain Dew all over your shirt. Unfortunately the analogy here is extreme pain or death.

[PhysOrg, Image: Wikipedia]

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DISCUSSION

geekymitch
geekymitch

Most recreational diving is at 30 feet? That's some pretty lame rec diving then, considering the PADI open water cert states pretty clearly that the rec limit is 130 feet.

I myself have logged around 60 dives, and looking through my logbook 3 of them are 30 feet or less. Around half are between 100-120 feet, and the rest are somewhere in the middle (mostly in the 60 - 80 foot range).

It's also not so much the air trying to rush out as it is the little tiny nitrogen bubbles turning into much bigger nitrogen bubbles under less pressure. Think about a water balloon under tremendous pressure - it'll crumple and be much smaller, whereas under less pressure it will be much bigger. Interestingly you see the same phenomena when watching your air gauge at depth - true story: I was on a dive at around 100 feet. Got myself just a smidge narc'd which is never good...just enough that I lost track of time. Being that deep for more than the recommended bottom time is bad because you do need at least a brief decompression safety stop. Dive buddy snapped me to attention (I was distracted by a large devil ray that kept passing over me) - at which point I checked my gauge and saw that I was WAY low on gas...panicked briefly, though not too badly as I always carry a pony bottle, but as I got shallower the amount of gas showing in my tank actually increased....so where I probably had around 300psi at depth, it went up to around 500 at 60 feet (first safety stop) and even more at 30, even though I was still breathing. Imagine that same thing happening to the air in your veins: not good. Can cause heart problems, stroke, death etc.