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Michelle Caton-Richards discusses the physiology of the condition commonly known as ‘the bends’ and how it should be treated in emergency departmentsSeen primarily in scuba divers who have breathed compressed air, decompression illness is a rare but potentially fatal condition. Prompt recognition and treatment of the illness, and urgent referral of patients to hyperbaric chambers, can mean the difference between full recovery and paralysis or death. This article describes decompression illness and how to recognise it, and discusses the treatment that patients require for the best chance of recovery with no adverse effects. It also includes a case study of a patient who developed this condition after a dive.