Risk of Neurological Insult in Competitive Deep Breath-Hold Diving

in International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance
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Context:

It has been widely believed that tissue nitrogen uptake from the lungs during breath-hold diving would be insufficient to cause decompression stress in humans. With competitive free diving, however, diving depths have been ever increasing over the past decades.

Methods:

A case is presented of a competitive free-diving athlete who suffered stroke-like symptoms after surfacing from his last dive of a series of 3 deep breath-hold dives. A literature and Web search was performed to screen for similar cases of subjects with serious neurological symptoms after deep breath-hold dives.

Case Details:

A previously healthy 31-y-old athlete experienced right-sided motor weakness and difficulty speaking immediately after surfacing from a breathhold dive to a depth of 100 m. He had performed 2 preceding breath-hold dives to that depth with surface intervals of only 15 min. The presentation of symptoms and neuroimaging findings supported a clinical diagnosis of stroke. Three more cases of neurological insults were retrieved by literature and Web search; in all cases the athletes presented with stroke-like symptoms after single breath-hold dives of depths exceeding 100 m. Two of these cases only had a short delay to recompression treatment and completely recovered from the insult.

Conclusions:

This report highlights the possibility of neurological insult, eg, stroke, due to cerebral arterial gas embolism as a consequence of decompression stress after deep breath-hold dives. Thus, stroke as a clinical presentation of cerebral arterial gas embolism should be considered another risk of extreme breath-hold diving.

Tetzlaff is with the Dept of Sports Medicine, Eberhard-Karls-University of Tübingen Medical Clinic, Tübingen, Germany. Schöppenthau is with the Dept of Anesthesiology, Berufsgenossenschaftliche Unfallklinik, Murnau, Germany. Schipke is with the Research Group Experimental Surgery, University Hospital Düsseldorf, Düsseldorf, Germany.

Address author correspondence to Kay Tetzlaff at kay.tetzlaff@klinikum.uni-tuebingen.de.