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Maintaining Your Respiratory Reserve

Just like skeletal muscles, respiratory muscles have a limited ability to respond to respiratory loads, and when they can’t keep up underwater due to increased gas density at depth and the added load of your rebreather, you may be in for an “eventful” dive.

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JJ on his JJ.” Photo by Andreas Hagberg.

by John Clarke

This doesn’t work. Her respiratory muscles are not strong enough.  Illustration by Cameron Cottrill.

Just like skeletal muscles, respiratory muscles have a limited ability to respond to respiratory loads. An excellent example of this is a person’s inability to breathe through an overly long snorkel (Figure 1.) Our respiratory muscles simply aren’t strong enough to overcome the pressure difference between water depth and the surface.

The primary respiratory muscle is the diaphragm, (the brown organ lying below the lungs in Figure 2.) The diaphragm is designed for low-intensity work maintained 24/7 for the entirety of your life. Like the heart muscle, its speciality is endurance. When called upon to maximally perform, the diaphragm needs assistance. That assistance is provided by the accessory respiratory muscles, primarily the intercostal muscles linking the ribs within the rib cage.


The human diaphragm separating the lungs from the abdominal cavity. Graphic by John Clarke.

Unless you’re reading this while running on a treadmill, your body is probably idling. Your heart is beating rhythmically, your diaphragm is methodically contracting and relaxing. But, if some dire event were to happen, you would be primed for action. If you needed to react to an emergency, your heart and lungs would race at full speed.

The difference between idling and full-speed capability is called physiological reserve, which in turn is divided into its components; cardiac, muscular, and ventilatory reserve. As drivers, pilots, and boat captains will attest, it’s always good to have fuel reserves. Likewise, physiological reserve is good to have in abundance.

The Dive

The following is an imaginary tale of a young, blond-haired hipster drawn to the Red Sea for a deep dive. He chose to dive on the wall at Ras Mohammed on the Eastern Shore of the Sinai, which descends quickly down to a thousand feet and beyond. That was his target—1,000 feet.

The previous year he bought a rebreather so gas usage should not be a problem for his deep dive. He also sprang for the cost of helium-oxygen diluent. Trimix would have been cheaper, but he spared no expense. Nothing but the best. To that end, he used loose-fill, fine grain Sodalime in his scrubber canister. 

These were his thoughts as he descended. 

Free-falling at three hundred feet. Never been this deep before. The water’s getting cold, so the warm gas from the canister feels good.

800 feet. Wow, the gas is thicker now.

When he reached the bottom, he realized something wasn’t right. He sucked harder and harder, feeling his full face mask collapsing around his face with each inhalation. He was “sucking rubber,” feeling like he was running out of gas, but his diluent pressure gage still read 1800 psi. 

Unconsciously, he compensated for the respiratory load by slowing his breathing—easing his discomfort. Concerned, he briefly switched to open circuit bailout gas, but that didn’t feel any better. In fact, it was worse, so he switched back to the bag.

Surprisingly, he couldn’t get off the bottom. In fact, he was slipping further downslope. He needed to drop weights, but they were integrated. He fumbled with his vest, trying to remember how to release the weights, but he couldn’t work it out.

He found the pony bottle to inflate his integrated BC, but after a second’s spit of air, it stopped filling. He would have to swim off the bottom. As he struggled to swim upwards in the darkness, and without bubbles to guide him, he wasn’t sure which way was up.

His heart was beating at its maximum rate, trying to force blood through his lungs, but he couldn’t force enough gas in and out of his lungs to clear his bloodstream of its increasingly toxic CO2 load. The build-up of CO2 in the arterial blood was clouding his thinking. The CO2 was making him want to breathe harder, but he couldn’t. The feeling of breathlessness—and impending doom—was overwhelming. 


The accident investigation on the equipment was inconclusive. The dive computer had flooded, but that was irrelevant. Surface pre-dive checks were passed. The rebreather seemed to function normally when tested in a swimming pool. The investigators convinced a Navy laboratory to press the rebreather down to 1,000 feet, but nothing abnormal was found other than a slight elevation of controlled PO2

The Analysis

Normal human airways compared to airways during an asthma attack. Graphic courtesy of Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.

An asthma attack can kill by narrowing the airways in the lung, making the person suffering the attack feel like they’re sucking air through a clogged straw. 

A healthy diver doesn’t have airways that constrict, but gas density increases with depth, causing the same effect as a narrowed airway. It becomes increasingly difficult to breathe as depth increases. A previous InDepth blog post on gas density discusses this subject.

If the strength of respiratory muscles is finite, just as it is for all muscles, then any load placed on those muscles will eat away a diver’s “respiratory reserve.” From the diaphragm’s perspective, the total loading it encounters is divided between that internal to the diver and that external to the diver. As gas density increases, internal loading increases. A rebreather is external to the body, so flow resistance through a rebreather adds to the total load placed on the respiratory muscles. If the internal resistance load increases a lot, as it does at great depth, there is very little reserve left for external resistance, like that of a rebreather. 

In this fictional tale of a hapless diver, he needlessly added respiratory resistance by using fine-grain Sodalime in his scrubber canister. Compared to large grain Sodalime, such as Sofnolime 408, fine-grain absorbent adds scrubber duration, but it also increases breathing resistance. It thus cut into the diver’s ventilatory reserve.

This fictional diver exceeded his physiological reserves by

1) not understanding the effect of dense gas on the “work of breathing,”

2) not understanding the limitation of his respiratory muscles, and

3) by not realizing the “best” Sodalime was not the best for breathing resistance. 

He also didn’t realize that a rebreather scrubber might remove all CO2 from the expired gas passing through it, but it is ventilation (breathing) that eliminates the body’s CO2 from the diver’s bloodstream. Once CO2 intoxication begins, cognitive and muscular ability quickly decline to the point where self-rescue may be impossible. 

Lessons From The U.S. Navy

Considering the seriousness of the topic, it is worthwhile to review the following figures prepared for the U.S. Navy. 

First, we define peak-to-peak mouth pressure, a measure of the pressure exerted by a working diver breathing through the external resistance of a rebreather. Total respiratory resistance for a diver comes in two parts: internal and external. In the following figures, those resistances in the upper airways are symbolized by a small opening, and in the external breathing apparatus, by a long, narrow opening representing a UBA attached to the diver’s mouth. 

High external resistance. In this case, the difference between mouth pressure and ambient water pressure is called ΔP1 Credit with modifcation: Direct measurement of pressures involved in vocal exercises using semi-occluded vocal tracts”.
Low external resistance. The difference between mouth pressure and ambient water pressure is called ΔP2. Credit with modification: “Direct measurement of pressures involved in vocal exercises using semi-occluded vocal tracts”.
Mouth pressure waveforms ΔP1 and ΔP2 during breathing with high (P1) and low (P2) external resistance.

This author reviewed over 250 dives by Navy divers at the Naval Medical Research Institute and the Navy Experimental Diving Unit. These were working dives involving strenuous exercise at simulated depths down to 1500 feet seawater, using gas mixtures ranging from air to nitrox and heliox. Gas densities ranged from about 1 gram per liter (g/L) (air at the surface) to over 8 g/L. Each dive was composed of a team of divers, so each plotted data point had more than one man-dive result included. An “eventful” dive was one where a diver stopped work due to loss of consciousness, or respiratory distress (“dyspnea” in medical terminology.) They were marked as red in the following figure. Uneventful dives were marked in black. 

Using a statistical technique called maximum likelihood, the data revealed a sloping line marking a boundary between eventful and uneventful dives. 

Peak-to-peak mouth pressure and gas density conspire to increase a diver’s risk of an “event” during a dive.

The fact that the zero-incidence line sloped downward illustrates the fact that the higher the gas density, the greater the respiratory load imposed on a diver by both internal and external (UBA) resistance. The higher that load, the lower the diver’s tolerance to high respiratory pressures. 

By measuring peak-to-peak mouth pressures, we are witnessing the effect of UBA flow resistance at high workloads. It does not reveal the flow resistance internal to the body. However, when gas density increases, internal resistance must also increase.

The interrupted lines in the figure illustrate lines of estimated equal probability of an event. The higher the peak-to-peak pressure for a given gas density, the higher the probability of an eventful dive.

Figure 7 suggests that at a gas density of over 8 grams per liter, practical work would be impossible. The only way to make it possible would be to reduce gas density by substituting helium for nitrogen, or substituting hydrogen for helium, and then doing as little work as possible to keep ΔP low.

For our fictional 1,000 foot diver, the gas density would have been between 6 and 7 grams per L. Using a rebreather, there would be virtually no physiological reserve at the bottom. Moderate work against the high breathing resistance at depth would be very likely to result in an “eventful” dive.

Image Citation for medical graphics: Robieux, Camille F, Christine Galant, Aude Lagier, Thierry Legou and Antoine Giovanni. “Direct measurement of pressures involved in vocal exercises using
semi-occluded vocal tracts.” Logopedics, phoniatrics, vocology 40 3 (2015):
106-12 .


John Clarke, also known as John R. Clarke, Ph.D., is a Navy diving researcher in physiology and physical science. Clarke was an early graduate of the Navy’s Scientist in the Sea Program. During his forty-year Navy career, he conducted physiological research on numerous experimental saturation dives. Two dives were to a pressure equivalent to 1500 fsw. For twenty-eight years he was the Scientific Director of the Navy Experimental Diving Unit in Panama City, FL. 

Clarke has authored a technothriller-science fiction series called the Jason Parker Trilogy. All three volumes, Middle Waters, Triangle, and Atmosphere, feature saturation diving from depths of 100 feet to 2,500 feet. The deepest dives involve hydreliox, a mixture of helium, hydrogen and oxygen. UFOs, aliens, and an uncaring cosmos lay the framework for political and human intrigue both on and off-planet.

Although recently retired, Clarke still works for NEDU as a Scientist Emeritus and contractor, when he isn’t writing about diving, aviation, and space. His websites are www.johnclarkeonline.com and www.jasonparkertrilogy.com. His thriller series is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. 

Additional Resources for Rebreather Divers

Fatal respiratory failure during a “technical” rebreather dive at extreme pressure

Diving Safety

RTC Launches New Rebreather Safety Initiative

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Header image: Rebreather diver wearing their MRS. Photo courtesy of rEVO.

In January 2021, the Rebreather Training Council (RTC) began developing several new safety initiatives in addition to its ongoing work on the advancement and development of rebreather training standards. RTC launched the first of these rebreather safety initiatives in March in an effort to reduce rebreather fatalities. 

Specifically, the initiative has been designed to educate and inform divers about the advantages of using mouthpiece retaining straps (MRS). The RTC now recommends the use of an MRS when diving a rebreather. It further recommends that rebreather divers be taught about the advantages of an MRS during their training, and that vendors supply them with their rebreathers (as is required according to the European rebreather standard EN14143). 

It is widely acknowledged that the use of rebreathers increases the probability of exposure to an inappropriate breathing gas, which can lead to a Loss of Consciousness (LoC). As sport rebreather diving community leaders, the RTC and its members believe the specific risk of water aspiration following LoC underwater must be proactively mitigated. An MRS is an easy-to-use, easy-to-fit device that prevents the mouthpiece from being lost in the event of (LoC), and can therefore minimize the risk of immediate drowning.

A mouthpiece retaining strap (MRS). Photo courtesy of AP Diving

According to Mark Caney, President of the RTC, “There is good evidence that Mouthpiece Retaining Straps have meaningful safety benefits, so we hope that all rebreather divers will take time to learn how these simple devices are deployed and embrace their use whenever practical.” He was joined by RTC vice chair Paul Toomer, “I have been using an MRS on my rebreather for some time now and I’m really happy to see such a great safety initiative being released into the mainstream,” he said.

The RTC’s desire is that all divers, instructors, and manufacturers will embrace this initiative as we continue to strive to make our sport ever safer. For a detailed explanation of the use and safety advantages of MRS, see MOUTHPIECE RETAINING STRAP SAFETY GUIDANCE NOTICE posted on the RTC website.

Additional Resources:

BSAC Webinar: Increasing The probability of Surviving Loss of Consciousness Underwater When Using A rebreather

InDepth: Can Mouthpiece Retaining Straps Improve Rebreather Diving Safety?
Where do Agencies and Manufactures Stand on Mouthpiece Restraining Straps?

A Mouthpiece Restraining Strap Just Might Save Your Life
—We surveyed CCR divers from around the world on MRS: Here are the results.

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