Hypercapnia in diving: a review of CO₂ retention in submersed exercise at depth.


Carbon dioxide (CO₂) retention, or hypercapnia, is a known risk of diving that can cause mental and physical impairments leading to life-threatening accidents. Often, such accidents occur due to elevated inspired carbon dioxide. For instance, in cases of CO₂ elimination system failures during rebreather dives, elevated inspired partial pressure of carbon dioxide (PCO₂) can rapidly lead to dangerous levels of hypercapnia. Elevations in PaCO₂ (arterial pressure of PCO₂) can also occur in divers without a change in inspired PCO₂. In such cases, hypercapnia occurs due to alveolar hypoventilation. Several factors of the dive environment contribute to this effect through changes in minute ventilation and dead space. Predominantly, minute ventilation is reduced in diving due to changes in respiratory load and associated changes in respiratory control. Minute ventilation is further reduced by hyperoxic attenuation of chemosensitivity. Physiologic dead space is also increased due to elevated breathing gas density and to hyperoxia. The Haldane effect, a reduction in CO₂ solubility in blood due to hyperoxia, may contribute indirectly to hypercapnia through an increase in mixed venous PCO₂. In some individuals, low ventilatory response to hypercapnia may also contribute to carbon dioxide retention. This review outlines what is currently known about hypercapnia in diving, including its measurement, cause, mental and physical effects, and areas for future study.







Sophia Dunworth

Assistant Professor of Anesthesiology

Anne Cherry

Associate Professor of Anesthesiology

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