The physiological kinetics of nitrogen and the prevention of decompression sickness

Clin Pharmacokinet. 2001 Jan;40(1):1-14. doi: 10.2165/00003088-200140010-00001.


Decompression sickness (DCS) is a potentially crippling disease caused by intracorporeal bubble formation during or after decompression from a compressed gas underwater dive. Bubbles most commonly evolve from dissolved inert gas accumulated during the exposure to increased ambient pressure. Most diving is performed breathing air, and the inert gas of interest is nitrogen. Divers use algorithms based on nitrogen kinetic models to plan the duration and degree of exposure to increased ambient pressure and to control their ascent rate. However, even correct execution of dives planned using such algorithms often results in bubble formation and may result in DCS. This reflects the importance of idiosyncratic host factors that are difficult to model, and deficiencies in current nitrogen kinetic models. Models describing the exchange of nitrogen between tissues and blood may be based on distributed capillary units or lumped compartments, either of which may be perfusion- or diffusion-limited. However, such simplistic models are usually poor predictors of experimental nitrogen kinetics at the organ or tissue level, probably because they fail to account for factors such as heterogeneity in both tissue composition and blood perfusion and non-capillary exchange mechanisms. The modelling of safe decompression procedures is further complicated by incomplete understanding of the processes that determine bubble formation. Moreover, any formation of bubbles during decompression alters subsequent nitrogen kinetics. Although these factors mandate complex resolutions to account for the interaction between dissolved nitrogen kinetics and bubble formation and growth, most decompression schedules are based on relatively simple perfusion-limited lumped compartment models of blood: tissue nitrogen exchange. Not surprisingly, all models inevitably require empirical adjustment based on outcomes in the field. Improvements in the predictive power of decompression calculations are being achieved using probabilistic bubble models, but divers will always be subject to the possibility of developing DCS despite adherence to prescribed limits.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms*
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Capillaries / metabolism
  • Decompression / adverse effects
  • Decompression Sickness / blood*
  • Decompression Sickness / prevention & control
  • Diving / adverse effects
  • Humans
  • Models, Biological*
  • Musculoskeletal System / metabolism
  • Nitrogen / blood*
  • Nitrogen / pharmacokinetics
  • Spinal Cord / metabolism
  • Tissue Distribution


  • Nitrogen