Nitrogen narcosis in scuba diving and why we don’t call it that anymore

Gas narcosis in scuba diving

Narcosis in scuba diving, “gas narcosis” or “nitrogen narcosis”: this is the change in thinking and awareness, sensory and motor function and behaviour that occurs at depth.  Breathing gas at depth leads to narcosis, often noticed around 30m it can be an issue from around 20m and below. 

Narcosis: a state of stupor, unconsciousness, or arrested activity produced by the influence of narcotics or other chemical or physical agents

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Narcosis is not well understood

Divers get narked due to breathing gases, such as nitrogen, at depth.  The deeper we dive, the more nitrogen (and other gas) is taken into the body.  There are a few different theories about why this changes our mental and physical abilities.  What is agreed is that the gases affect the nervous system including the brain.  They seem to affect the nerve cells, and in a way that is not fully understood. Changes due to the gas interfere with how messages are sent around in the brain and to other parts of the nervous system. 

Narcosis or nitrogen narcosis?

(In English) it was first referred to as “nitrogen narcosis” in scuba diving. It was believed that the effect was due nitrogen in the body causing interference. The nitrogen is in the air we breathe and is usually harmless. When we dive the air we breathe gets “thicker” due to the pressure of breathing under heavy water. People used to think that narcosis happened because of the build up of nitrogen. Unlike oxygen, this is a gas we do not use up in the body.

But then it was realised that nitrogen is not the only gas that can cause the narcotic effect. So, rather than saying “nitrogen narcosis” the term became “inert gas narcosis” to cover lots of different gases that we do not use in the body. (Inert means the gas does not have a chemical effect on us).

Recently, it has become clear that even the oxygen has a role in narcosis. So the “inert” has now been dropped and “gas narcosis” is often used, partly to not be confused with the non-diving meaning of narcosis due to drug intoxication.

As divers, speaking to other divers about scuba diving, we can simply say “narcosis” or talk of being “narked”. Better still, use the hand signal.