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What is Nitrogen Narcosis?

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  • Written By: Malcolm Tatum
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 10 September 2016
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Nitrogen narcosis is a condition in which the consciousness of an individual is adversely affected as the result of diving in a deep body of water. The individual may become light-headed, have difficulty concentrating, or possibly experience hallucinations.

This condition is know by several different names. Many experienced divers refer to the condition as simply narcosis. Others prefer a slightly more explanatory name, such as inert gas narcosis. People who enjoy fanciful names for different health issues may refer to this condition as the Martini effect or Raptures of the Deep.

By whatever name, the symptoms of nitrogen narcosis are the same. As the diver advances to a deeper depth, he or she may begin to feel slightly intoxicated, not unlike the warm feeling that if experienced after having one or two alcoholic drinks. At first, the sensation may be pleasant. However, it rapidly moves on to have a negative impact on the diver’s ability to think coherently, a situation that could place the diver in a great deal of danger.

Along with the increasing sense of being intoxicated, some divers also experience severe anxiety as they continue to move deeper into the water. The anxiety can manifest as a full-blown panic attack, effectively rendering the diver unable to maintain a sense of direction or bearing. Some numbness in the extremities may take place, as well as difficulty in moving the hands and feet.

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The nitrogen narcosis symptoms only get worse as the diver moves to a greater depth. There is no way to build up a tolerance for the symptoms, and they will not level off of their own accord. Unless the diver recognizes what is happening and stops the descent, there is a very real chance of injury or even death.

Fortunately, the process of nitrogen narcosis treatment is a simple one: reverse the descent and return to a level that is closer to the water surface. As the diver rises, the symptoms will begin to fade. After leaving the water, most divers who experience even a severe bout of narcosis are fully recovered in a few minutes.

Over time, divers develop a good idea of how deep they can dive without having the ill effects of nitrogen narcosis reach a serious level. In any event, it is wise to always dive with a partner nearby. Should the diver for some reason fail to remain at a safe depth, the other diver can assist the disoriented partner and return him or her to the safety of the water’s surface.

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