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Barotrauma Treatment & Management

  • Author: Joseph Kaplan, MD, MS, FACEP; Chief Editor: Joe Alcock, MD, MS  more...
Updated: Nov 04, 2015

Prehospital Care

Prehospital care should consist of assessing the ABCs and correcting any immediate life-threatening conditions while maintaining adequate oxygenation and perfusion. Patients should be placed on high-flow oxygen and have large-bore venous access with isotonic fluid infusion to maintain blood pressure and pulse. Although research is being done on the use of surfactants being given prior to high-risk activities such as deep dives or space missions, it is still in the bench research stage of development.[19] Several in vitro studies have been promising, and there is hope that surfactant use will someday greatly decrease the frequency of barotrauma.


Emergency Department Care

Stabilize the airway, breathing, and circulation.


Perform endotracheal intubation on a patient who has an unstable airway or has persistent hypoxia despite breathing 100% oxygen.

Perform tube thoracostomy to evacuate a pneumothorax or hemothorax.

Perform nasotracheal or orotracheal intubation when appropriate.

Needle decompression

Needle decompression of the chest is indicated for suspected tension pneumothorax. A large-bore needle is inserted over the rib in the second intercostal space, midclavicular line.

Foley catheterization

Place a Foley catheter in patients who present with shock to assist in assessing volume and hydration status. Normal urine output is 1 mL/kg of body weight per hour.

Place a Foley catheter in patients with spinal cord manifestations of DCS who are unable to void due to a neurogenic bladder.


Continue intravenous hydration to maintain adequate blood pressure.

Recompression therapy

Recompression therapy should be performed at a dive chamber by a dive medical officer or personnel certified in hyperbaric medicine. Indications include spinal cord injury and neurologic impairment.

Sinus squeeze

Symptomatic therapy with decongestants, both oral and nasal, is indicated.

Pain control should be instituted with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or narcotic analgesic medications.

Middle ear squeeze

Severity and treatment are based on the Teed scale, as follows:

  • Mild (Teed 0-2): Decongestants, both nasal (0.05% oxymetazoline hydrochloride spray bid for 3 d) and oral (pseudoephedrine 60-120 mg bid/qid) are administered.
  • Moderate (Teed 3-4): Treatment is same as above, but a short course of oral steroids, such as prednisone 60 mg/d for 6 days then tapering over 7-10 days, may be needed. If TM has ruptured or water is contaminated, consider antibiotics that treat acute otitis media.
  • Severe (Teed 5): Treatment is same as above. Consider myringotomy if the above have failed. Control pain with Tylenol with codeine (acetaminophen 300 mg with codeine phosphate 30 mg) 1-2 tablets every 4-6 hours.

Decompression sickness type I

These patients should receive high-flow oxygen via a nonrebreather mask.

After establishing intravenous access, administer isotonic fluids (isotonic sodium chloride solution or lactated Ringer solution) to maintain urine output at 1-2 mL/kg/h.

These patients should also receive aspirin 325-650 mg for antiplatelet effects as well as pain control.

Obtain appropriate radiographs to evaluate for fractures or dislocations.

If a patient's medical condition continues to deteriorate, he or she is then classified as having DCS type II.

Currently, the United States Air Force is developing a new, shorter Treatment Table 8 (TT8) that allows for dives of shorter duration (lasting 30 min with air breaks between each 2 atmospheric absolute [ATA] dive). This is done with 4 dives each for 30 minutes with 10-minute air breaks. The TT8 should only be used to treat DCS type I when symptoms occur within 2 hours of altitude chamber or flight and when partial response on oxygen after 10 minutes has occurred. Treatment Table 6 (TT6) should be used immediately if symptoms persist after the first 30-minute interval or recur within 24 hours.

Decompression sickness type II

All of the interventions for DCS type I are appropriate for DCS type II.

These patients need recompression therapy to resolve their symptoms.

The most appropriate management is to transfer the patient to the nearest hyperbaric chamber.

Arterial gas embolism

Patients with AGE can have mild symptoms from a small embolism that may improve with therapy for DCS type I, including intravenous hydration, high-flow oxygen, and aspirin.

Patients with severe AGE (ie, unstable blood pressure, respirations, neurologic status) require immediate recompression therapy in a hyperbaric chamber.



Consult a specialist at a recompression chamber for any patient with DCS type II or an unstable AGE. The recompression chamber specialist must be contacted prior to transfer to determine chamber availability. A complete list of recompression chambers is available from the Divers' Alert Network and is only provided by calling (919) 684-8111 or (919) 684-4326.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Joseph Kaplan, MD, MS, FACEP Attending Physician, Department of Emergency Medicine, Martin Army Community Hospital, Fort Benning; Assistant Director of Emergency Department, Northeast Alabama Medical Center

Joseph Kaplan, MD, MS, FACEP is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Emergency Physicians

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Marshall E Eidenberg, DO Staff Emergency Physician, Via Christi Regional Medical Center

Marshall E Eidenberg, DO is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Emergency Medicine, American College of Emergency Physicians

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Received salary from Medscape for employment. for: Medscape.

David Eitel, MD, MBA Associate Professor, Department of Emergency Medicine, York Hospital; Physician Advisor for Case Management, Wellspan Health System, York

David Eitel, MD, MBA is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Emergency Physicians, American Society of Pediatric Nephrology, Society for Academic Emergency Medicine, Society of Critical Care Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Joe Alcock, MD, MS Associate Professor, Department of Emergency Medicine, University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center

Joe Alcock, MD, MS is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Emergency Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

Dana A Stearns, MD Assistant Director of Undergraduate Education, Department of Emergency Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital; Associate Director, Undergraduate Clerkship in Surgery, Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School; Assistant Professor of Surgery, Harvard Medical School

Dana A Stearns, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Emergency Physicians

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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Basic US Navy dive table used to compare the patient's dive profile to the standard dive profile. Reprinted with permission of the US Navy.
US Navy dive table for altitude diving used to compare the patient's dive profile with the standard dive profile at altitude. Reprinted with permission of the US Navy.
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