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Wednesday, April 28, 1999 Published at 18:43 GMT 19:43 UK


Flatulence cure for the bends

Diving experiments were conducted on pigs

A bacteria that causes flatulence could be the answer to the bends - the debilitating and sometimes fatal condition which affects deep sea divers.

Researchers at the Naval Medical Center in Maryland, USA, say that experiments on pigs have shown that the bends or decompression sickness can be almost halved by a methane-producing bacteria found in the gut.

They believe that in the future the bacteria, Methanobrevibacter smithii, could be added to food supplements and given to deep sea divers to prevent the bends.

Nitrogen bubbles

Decompression sickness is caused by the production of nitrogen bubbles in the blood.

This is related to the depth and time of a dive and to the rate at which the diver ascends from depth.

If divers come up too fast, they can suffer a range of symptoms from limb paralysis, headaches, blurred vision and tingling skin.

In severe cases, the bends can be fatal.

Professional deep sea divers are most at risk because they can descend to depths of up to 600 metres, for example, to repair oil rigs.

At such depths, the air is so dense that divers require a mixture of oxygen and helium or hydrogen.

According to the New Scientist, Methanobrevibacter smithii metabolises hydrogen to form methane.

Pig divers

The US researchers tested their idea that removing the hydrogen from the divers' blood would reduce their risk of getting the bends.

They injected the bacteria into the gut of several pigs and shut them in a decompression chamber.

The pigs were then subjected to the simulated effects of ascending from a three-hour dive at around 240 metres below the surface of the sea.

Those not given the bacteria were nearly twice as likely to show signs of decompression sickness.

But the downside was that the pigs with the bacteria suffered more flatulence, although only briefly.

The scientists say the supplements are harmless.

"These are microbes that you have in your intestine right now," said Susan Kayar, one of the researchers.

Lawrence Martin, a specialist in diving medicine from Mount Sinai Medical Centre in Cleveland, Ohio, said the approach was "exciting and exotic".

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