The most common symptom of decompression sickness is joint pain, typically called a joint bend. It is often the symptom most overlooked by divers as well, with many joint bends being reported further down the line. Aches and pains so often seem to be a part of every day life that it is often put down to that at first, rather than decompression illness… early recognition and treatment is key to full resolution. Approximately 70% of all divers suffering decompression sickness report joint pain to one degree or another.
What is a joint bend?
The pain from joint bends is often described as a deep, dull ache and the examining Doctor can readily distinguish between musculo-skeletal aches and pains and those more likely to be associated with decompression sickness.
Clearly there is a greater risk of it being a bend if the dive was less than perfect, but it is crucial to point out that many divers suffering decompression sickness have carried out a text book dive, completing all stops and no rapid ascents – it is not an exact science, so divers should always be on the lookout for any symptoms that occur post-dive.
The picture shows an actual bubble formed in the spaces between the joints. This is what causes that deep ache. How much it hurts varies, from a low grade dull ache to extremely painful and impossible to ignore. Most commonly effected joints are the shoulders, elbows, knees and ankles but other joint bends are seen as well.
Always assume that joint pain that occurs after diving may be related to the dive and seek urgent, specialist medical advice. Prompt recognition and recompression resolves the pain and prevents long term damage.