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The Deep

The Physiology of Decompression Sickness


Giovanni Casotti
Department of Biology
West Chester University


This case study presents a fictional story in a realistic setting to teach aspects of human cardiovascular and respiratory physiology as they pertain to decompression sickness and its treatment options. Specifically, students learn about the partial pressures of gases in the circulatory system and how they change with depth and altitude. The case relates how Dan and Beth, a couple who operate a charter business for diving expeditions, take six tourists out to dive a shipwreck. When it comes time to ascend, one of the divers cannot be found and Dan must stay behind for the rescue. When he finds the missing diver, there is not enough air left in their tanks to rise slowly and safely decompress. They make it to the surface, but must be airlifted to the nearest decompression chamber for treatment. This case was developed for Masters-level students in biology, but could easily be adapted for an upper-level undergraduate physiology course.

  • Understand what the normal partial pressures of gases in the circulatory system are and how they change with depth and altitude.
  • Define and know the symptoms of hypoxia and hypercapnia.
  • Understand what leads to decompression sickness and its treatment options.
  • Understand how marine mammals such as dolphins and whales cope with and often avoid decompression sickness.
Keywords: Diving; decompression sickness; the bends; cardiovascular physiology; hypoxia; hypercapnia; respiration
Topical Area: N/A
Educational Level: Undergraduate upper division, Graduate
Formats: PDF
Type/Method: Directed, Interrupted, Journal Article
Language: English
Subject Headings: Biology (General)   Physiology   Anatomy  
Date Posted: 12/30/2013
Date Modified: N/A
Copyright: Copyright held by the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Please see our usage guidelines, which outline our policy concerning permissible reproduction of this work.

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