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The Complete List Of Medical Conditions That Might Give You Pause from Scuba Diving

Scuba Diving doesn’t need you to have an athletic physique but indulging in this activity does require you to be physically and medically fit enough to be able to dive and carry yourself safely underwater.

Before participating in this sport, you should be aware of any underlying medical conditions that may pose a risk. Medical conditions can affect your body’s response to changes in pressure, oxygen levels, and physical exertion, which can all impact your ability to dive safely.

I compiled a list of all known medical conditions that inherently pose a risk to diving in this article.

How Your Body To During Scuba Diving

First, what exactly happens to your body during a dive?

As you descend into the ocean’s depths, the increasing pressure compresses tissue and allows more oxygen to dissolve in the bloodstream. Sounds great, right?

But rising back up to the surface too quickly allows those oxygen bubbles to grow and cause injuries like decompression sickness.

Diving also requires controlled breathing, coordination, and exertion which can exacerbate underlying health issues.

Bottom line: your body is under a LOT of stress! Any pre-existing conditions can potentially become problematic underwater.

List of Medical Conditions that Poses a Risk to Scuba Diving

1. Behavioral Health

Take a deep belly breath and slowly exhale…sound relaxing? Not if you experience anxiety or panic attacks!

Being isolated underwater can certainly trigger fearful feelings. Studies show up to 30% of divers deal with anxiety.

Panic attacks can also cause dangerous hyperventilation, loss of coordination, and poor decision-making in the face of danger.

What you can do: If your anxiety is mild, gradual exposure combined with calming techniques may help you stay cool as a cucumber under the sea. For moderate to severe anxiety, consult a diving psychologist to design a tailored program.

And remember – never push your limits if you feel acutely anxious before a dive. Listen to your mind and body. There’s always next time!

Severe Risk

  • Panic disorder with or without agoraphobia
  • Claustrophobia
  • Psychosis
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Severe anxiety or depression
  • Substance abuse or dependence

Moderate Risk

  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Eating disorders
  • Mild to moderate anxiety or depression

2. Cardiovascular

With up to 30% of diving deaths caused by heart issues, cardiac conditions deserve ample consideration. Intense exertion and pressure changes underwater can overtax your ticker.

Those with a history of heart attack, arrhythmia, or other cardiovascular disease have an elevated risk of heart failure or stroke while diving. Not only that, underlying cardiovascular conditions can also increase the risk of decompression sickness or pulmonary edema during a dive.

What you can do: Get thoroughly evaluated by a cardiologist who can gauge the safety of diving with your specific condition. They may recommend medications, limits on depth, or other precautions.

Annual check-ups are also key to monitoring any progression over time. Stay heart-healthy and you’ll be primed to plunge deep!

Severe risk

  • Coronary artery disease (CAD)
  • Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy
  • Congestive heart failure
  • History of heart attack or stroke
  • Aortic aneurysm

Moderate risk

  • Valvular heart disease
  • Hypertension (controlled)
  • Pacemaker
  • Heart murmur

3. Neurological

The neurological system plays a crucial role in maintaining balance and coordination, which are essential for scuba diving.

Certain neurological conditions, such as epilepsy or Parkinson’s disease, can increase the risk of seizures or loss of consciousness, which can be potentially hazardous during a dive.

What you can do: Consult a neurologist to thoroughly evaluate your individual neurological status. Certain precautions or restrictions may allow those with mild deficits to dive safely.

Severe risk

  • Epilepsy or seizures
  • Stroke
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Brain injury

Moderate risk

  • Migraine headaches
  • History of seizures (controlled)
  • Vertigo
  • Bell’s palsy
  • Migraine headaches with aura
  • Transient ischemic attacks
  • Peripheral neuropathy

4. Pulmonary

Your lungs are directly exposed to the pressure changes that occur during scuba diving. Hence, smooth breathing is crucial during your dives.

Respiratory conditions like asthma or COPD can make it tough to get needed air, especially when exerting yourself, thus significantly increasing the chances of barotrauma. Not ideal when diving!

What you can do: For mild, well-controlled asthma you may be able to dive safely with certain precautions. Severe lung disease likely means diving is off the table.

Severe risk

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Pulmonary fibrosis
  • Pneumothorax
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Asthma (uncontrolled)

Moderate risk

  • Asthma
  • Sinusitis
  • Bronchitis

5. Gastrointestinal

Gastrointestinal conditions can affect your ability to equalize pressure changes during a dive, increasing the risk of ear or sinus injuries. In addition, certain gastrointestinal conditions, such as inflammatory bowel disease or gastric ulcers, can cause abdominal pain or discomfort and can make you lose focus during a dive.

Severe risk

  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
  • Gastric ulcer
  • Hernia
  • Severe acid reflux or GERD
  • Bowel obstruction

Moderate risk

  • Mild acid reflux or GERD
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

Talking about gastric problems have you ever wondered if it is safe to pass gas frequently while scuba diving? Maybe you should check out this post about the myth vs. reality of farting during your dive.

6. Haematological

From oxygen delivery to clotting factors, your blood cells impact every aspect of diving.

Certain hematological conditions like anemia, polycythemia, and thalassemia can affect your body’s blood clotting or oxygen-carrying capacity, increasing the risk of decompression sickness.

Sickle cell anemia, for example, can cause blood cells to become sickle-shaped, making them more prone to clotting, which can block small blood vessels and lead to tissue damage, including in the lungs.

What you can do: Be upfront with your hematologist about your diving ambitions. They can help determine risks based on your blood counts and history. Infusions or medications may be recommended to optimize your status for diving.

Severe risk

  • Sickle cell anemia
  • Bleeding disorders (e.g. hemophilia)
  • Blood clotting disorders (e.g. deep vein thrombosis)

Moderate risk

  • Anaemia
  • Polycythemia
  • Thalassemia

7. Metabolic & Endocrinological

Metabolic and endocrinological conditions, such as diabetes or thyroid disorders, can affect your ability to regulate blood sugar or hormone levels during a dive, increasing the risk of decompression sickness or other diving-related injuries.

What you can do: Get evaluated by an endocrinologist to optimize control of your condition. Blood sugar monitoring and medication adjustments may be necessary to dive safely with diabetes.

Severe risk

  • Diabetes (insulin-dependent)
  • Thyroid disease (uncontrolled)
  • Adrenal gland disorders
  • Pituitary gland disorders
  • Cushing’s syndrome

Moderate risk

  • Type 2 diabetes (controlled)
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Hyperthyroidism

8. Orthopaedic

Scuba diving requires a certain level of physical fitness and mobility, as well as the ability to carry heavy equipment. Any underlying orthopedic condition, such as a recent joint replacement or chronic pain, can affect an individual’s ability to move freely and safely during a dive.

What you can do: Allow at least 6 months post-fracture/surgery before diving. See your orthopedist to tailor precautions.

Severe risk

  • Spinal cord injury
  • Joint replacement (recent)
  • Severe osteoporosis
  • Recent fractures or dislocations
  • Chronic pain

Moderate risk

  • Arthritis
  • Mild to moderate osteoporosis
  • Mild back pain
  • Amputations
  • Healed fractures > 6 months
  • Mild arthritis

9. Otolaryngological

The ears, nose, and throat are directly exposed to the pressure changes that occur during scuba diving. During a dive, pressure changes can affect the ears and sinuses, leading to discomfort or even damage to the inner ear.

Any underlying otolaryngological condition, such as hearing loss or chronic ear infections, can increase the risk of ear or sinus injuries. Hearing loss can make it difficult to equalize pressure in the middle ear, which can lead to barotrauma.

What you can do: Discuss your history with an ENT. Certain treatments or a prolonged waiting period may be advised before clearing for diving.

Severe risk

  • Hearing loss (unilateral or bilateral)
  • Tinnitus
  • Meniere’s disease
  • Recent ear surgery
  • Chronic ear infections

Moderate risk

  • Allergies (seasonal or food-related)
  • Sinus infections

Consult a Dive Doctor On A Regular Basis

Consulting a dive doctor before scuba diving is crucial, especially if you have any underlying medical conditions. A dive doctor is best suited for assessing your medical history and current health status to determine if scuba diving is safe for you. They can also provide recommendations for any necessary precautions or adjustments to your dive plan to ensure your safety underwater.

Moreover, it is important to be honest and open about any medical conditions you may have when filling out the medical form that dive centers provide. Concealing any medical conditions can put yourself and others at risk during the dive.

The Takeaway: Put Safety First

Before breaking out your dive mask, reflect honestly on your health status. Certain conditions do necessitate sitting it out on the sandy shores…at least for now.

But others can be managed with your doctor’s guidance so you can dive in moderately and responsibly. Consider your risks, have frank conversations with your providers, and prioritize safety – above all else.

William Dupre

William Dupre

Retired Master Diver with 20+ years of experience and 2100+ logged dives. Presently, spending my time blogging about Diving and checking off locations one by one from my bucket list of dive destinations.

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