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Chapter: Medical Physiology: Physiology of Deep-Sea Diving and Other Hyperbaric Conditions

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Nitrogen Narcosis at High Nitrogen Pressures

About four fifths of the air is nitrogen.

Nitrogen Narcosis at High Nitrogen Pressures

About four fifths of the air is nitrogen. At sea-level pressure, the nitrogen has no significant effect on bodily function, but at high pressures it can cause varying degrees of narcosis. When the diver remains beneath the sea for an hour or more and is breathing compressed air, the depth at which the first symptoms of mild narcosis appear is about 120 feet.

 At this level the diver begins to exhibit joviality and to lose many of his or her cares. At 150 to 200 feet, the diver becomes drowsy. At 200 to 250 feet, his or her strength wanes considerably, and the diver often becomes too clumsy to perform the work required. Beyond 250 feet (8.5 atmospheres pressure), the diver usually becomes almost useless as a result of nitrogen narcosis if he or she remains at these depths too long.

Nitrogen narcosis has characteristics similar to those of alcohol intoxication, and for this reason it has frequently been called “raptures of the depths.” The mechanism of the narcotic effect is believed to be the same as that of most other gas anesthetics. That is, it dissolves in the fatty substances in neuronal mem-branes and, because of its physical effect on altering ionic conductance through the membranes, reduces neuronal excitability.


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