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J Appl Physiol (1985). 2003 Jun;94(6):2145-50. Epub 2003 Jan 31.

Biophysical basis for inner ear decompression sickness.

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  • 1Anaesthesia and Intensive Care, The University of Adelaide, Adelaide 5005, Australia.


Isolated inner ear decompression sickness (DCS) is recognized in deep diving involving breathing of helium-oxygen mixtures, particularly when breathing gas is switched to a nitrogen-rich mixture during decompression. The biophysical basis for this selective vulnerability of the inner ear to DCS has not been established. A compartmental model of inert gas kinetics in the human inner ear was constructed from anatomical and physiological parameters described in the literature and used to simulate inert gas tensions in the inner ear during deep dives and breathing-gas substitutions that have been reported to cause inner ear DCS. The model predicts considerable supersaturation, and therefore possible bubble formation, during the initial phase of a conventional decompression. Counterdiffusion of helium and nitrogen from the perilymph may produce supersaturation in the membranous labyrinth and endolymph after switching to a nitrogen-rich breathing mixture even without decompression. Conventional decompression algorithms may result in inadequate decompression for the inner ear for deep dives. Breathing-gas switches should be scheduled deep or shallow to avoid the period of maximum supersaturation resulting from decompression.

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