Common Antibiotic Might Save Divers with Decompression Sickness

file photo
file photo

Published Aug 21, 2019 8:39 PM by The Maritime Executive

Scientists from the U.S. Naval Medical Research Center (NMRC) say they have identified a common antibiotic that can be used as a therapy to reduce the effects of decompression sickness (commonly called “the bends”) in divers.

Decompression sickness is caused by a rapid decrease in the pressure that surrounds a person, either air or water. Dissolved gases come out of solution into bubbles inside the body on depressurization. Since bubbles can form in or migrate to any part of the body, decompression sickness can produce many symptoms, and its effects may vary from joint pain and rashes to paralysis and death. Serious cardiovascular or neurological injury can also occur if the bubbles travel through the circulatory system. 

Treatment typically involves therapeutic recompression which aims to reduce the effects of gas bubbles by physically reducing their size. The quicker treatment begins, the better chance an individual has for recovery.

“While recompression therapy is the gold standard for treating decompression sickness, adequate chamber capacity might not be available during operations with a large number of casualties, or in remote locations,” says Lt. Rainey Johnson, undersea medical officer. “Considering these factors we chose to try a common and inexpensive FDA approved antibiotic - in this case Doxycycline - to give divers better treatment and time. The drug prevents decompression sickness severity by inhibiting matrix metalloproteinases and modifying leukocyte responses.”

Johnson says further studies are underway on the drug.