Women’s Health and Diving

Women of all ages have unique needs in terms of overall health, and it is very individualized and determined by many personal and environmental factors. There are a broad scope of health concerns — including certain cancers or complications from certain procedures — and the symptoms and severity of many conditions vary from each individual, which can make it hard to diagnose or treat. Below are common conditions and scenarios that affect women — from cancers to breast feeding — each of which could impact diving. Click through each condition to learn more.

Breast Cancer

Tumors in the breasts are not uncommon, especially after age 30. Tumors may be cancerous (malignant) or non-cancerous (benign). Approximately 1 in 9 women will develop breast cancer. Early detection can be made with regular, manual self-examinations of the breasts, but not all tumors can be detected in this manner. Mammography (X-ray of the breast) can detect tumors that manual examination cannot. The American Cancer Society recommends the following:

  • Women 20 years of age and older should perform breast self-examination every month.
  • Women ages 20-39 should have a physical examination of the breast every three years, performed by a healthcare professional such as a physician, physician assistant, nurse or nurse practitioner.
  • Women 40 and older should have a physical examination of the breast every year, performed by a healthcare professional such as a physician, physician assistant, nurse or nurse practitioner.
  • Women 40 and older should have a mammogram every year.

Tumors are often removed surgically and treatment of malignant tumors may involve surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy – or a combination of two or three of these procedures.

Both chemotherapy and radiotherapy can have toxic effects on the lung, surrounding tissue and body cells that have a rapid growth cycle such as blood cells.

Implications in Diving

Cytotoxic drugs (chemotherapy) and radiation therapy can have unpleasant side effects such as nausea and vomiting, and a prolonged course of therapy can result in greatly decreased energy levels. This makes diving while experiencing such side effects inadvisable. Radiation and some chemotherapeutic drugs can cause pulmonary toxicity.

An evaluation to establish the safety of a return to diving should include an assessment of the lung to ensure that damage likely to predispose the diver to pulmonary barotrauma (arterial gas embolism, pneumothorax or pneumomediastinum) is not present.

Finally, before diving, healing must occur, and the surgeon must be satisfied that immersion in salt water will not contribute to wound infection. Strength, general fitness and well-being should be back to normal. The risk of infection, which may have increased temporarily during chemotherapy or radiotherapy, should have returned to normal levels.

Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian tumors may be malignant (cancerous) or benign (non-cancerous). Tumors may be solid or a hollow sac (cysts). Cysts are sometimes filled with fluid and usually are the non-cancerous form of an ovarian tumor. Ovarian tumors are not all that uncommon. There is no reliable testing or screening for ovarian cancer. Diagnostic tests CA 125 and ultrasound are often recommended but have a very high false positive false negative, but tests may register as abnormal in many other diseases besides ovarian cancer. Pap smears occasionally can have pieces of calcium on then called psammoma bodies, which can be indicative of ovarian tumors.

Implications in Diving

In respect to diving, the major concern would be the effects on the body from the surgery and/or radiation/chemotherapy treatments. First, if surgery was done, complete healing to have taken place in the site of the incision. Strength and general feeling of well being back.

Cytotoxic drugs (chemotherapy), have unpleasant side effects such as nausea and vomiting, and a prolonged course of therapy usually results in greatly decreased levels of energy due to their cytotoxic effects. This makes diving while experiencing such side effects unadvisable. Some of these drugs can cause pulmonary toxicity and patients can have residual pulmonary functional impairment for a year or longer after they have finished treatment. Pulmonary function studies may be necessary to verify adequate ventilation and clear pulmonary airway passages.

Ovarian Tumors

Ovarian tumors may be malignant (cancerous) or benign (non-cancerous). Tumors may be solid or a hollow sac (cysts). Cysts are sometimes filled with fluid and usually are the non-cancerous form of an ovarian tumor. Ovarian tumors are not all that uncommon and, if identified early, they can be removed surgically or with radiation treatments.

Implications in Diving

With respect to diving, the major issues are the effects on the body from the surgery and/or radiation/chemotherapy treatments.


Pregnancy is the period of time in which a fetus develops inside a woman’s uterus. A woman’s pregnancy usually lasts about 40 weeks — just over nine months — as measured from the last menstrual period to delivery. An estimated due date can be calculated by determining the first day of the last menstrual period and counting back three months from that date. Then, add one year and seven days to that date. This is called Naegele’s Rule and based on a typical 28-day cycle.

Implications in Diving

There is little scientific data available regarding diving while pregnant. Much of the available evidence is anecdotal. Laboratory studies are confined to animal research and the results are conflicting. Some retrospective survey type questionnaires have been performed but are limited by data interpretation.

An issue to keep in mind is the risk of decompression illness (DCI) to the mother due to the physiological changes which occur while pregnant. During pregnancy, maternal body fluid distribution is altered, and this redistribution decreases the exchange of dissolved gases in the central circulation. Theoretically, this fluid may be a site of nitrogen retention. Fluid retention during pregnancy may also cause nasopharyngeal swelling, which can lead to nose and ear stuffiness. In regards to diving, these may increase a pregnant woman’s risk of ear or sinus squeezes. Pregnant women experiencing morning sickness, which could then couple with motion sickness from a rocking boat, may have to deal with nausea and vomiting during a dive. This is an unpleasant experience and could lead to more serious problems if the diver panics.

Due to the limited data available and the uncertainty of the effects of diving on a fetus, diving represents an increased exposure for the risk of injury during pregnancy. There’s a baseline incidence of injury including cases of DCI in diving. One must consider the effects on the fetus if the mother must undergo recompression treatment.

Return to Diving After Giving Birth

Diving, like any other sport, requires a certain degree of conditioning and fitness. Divers who want to return to diving postpartum (after having a child) should follow the guidelines suggested for other sports and activities.

Implications in Diving 

After a vaginal delivery, women can usually resume light to moderate activity within one to three weeks. This depends of several factors: prior level of conditioning; exercise and conditioning during pregnancy; pregnancy-related complications; postpartum fatigue; and anemia, if any. Women who have exercise regimens prior to pregnancy and birth generally resume exercise programs and sports participation in earnest at three to four weeks after giving birth.

Obstetricians generally recommend avoiding sexual intercourse and immersion for 21 days postpartum. This allows the cervix to close, decreasing the risk of introducing infection into the genital tract. A good rule of thumb is to wait four weeks after delivery before returning to diving.

After a cesarean delivery (often called a C-section, made via a surgical incision through the walls of the abdomen and uterus), wound-healing has to be included in the equation. Most obstetricians advise waiting at least four to six weeks after this kind of delivery before resuming full activity. Given the need to regain some measure of lost conditioning, coupled with wound healing, and the significant weight-bearing load of carrying dive gear, it’s advisable to wait at least eight weeks after a C-section before returning to diving.

Any moderate or severe medical complication of pregnancy – such as twins, pre-term labor, hypertension or diabetes – may further delay return to diving. Prolonged bed rest in these cases may have led to profound deconditioning and loss of aerobic capacity and muscle mass. For women who have had deliveries with medical complications, a medical screening and clearance are advisable before they return to diving.

Caring for a newborn may interfere with a woman’s attempts to recover her strength and stamina. Newborn care, characterized by poor sleep and fatigue, is a rigorous and demanding time in life.


A mother may choose to breastfeed her infant while maintaining an otherwise active life. This may continue for weeks or months, depending on the mother’s preference.

Implications in Diving

Is it safe to scuba dive while breastfeeding?

From the standpoint of the child, the mother’s breast milk is not unduly affected. The nitrogen absorbed into the body tissues is a component of breathing compressed air or other gas mixes containing nitrogen. This form of nitrogen is an inert gas and plays no role in body metabolism. Although nitrogen accumulates in all of the tissues and fluids of the body, washout after a dive occurs quickly. Insignificant amounts of this nitrogen would be present in the mother’s breast milk; there is, however, no risk of the infant accumulating this nitrogen.

From the mother’s standpoint, there is no reason for a woman who is breastfeeding her child to avoid diving, provided there is no infection or inflammation of the breast.


With endometriosis, the tissue containing typical endometrial cells occurs abnormally in various locations outside the uterus. During menstruation this abnormally occurring endometrial tissue, like the lining of the uterus, undergoes cyclic bleeding. The blood in this endometrial tissue has no means of draining to the outside of the body. As a result, blood collects in the surrounding tissue, causing pain and discomfort.

Implications in Diving

Because endometriosis can cause increased bleeding, cramping, amount and duration of menstrual flow, diving may not be in a woman’s best interest when she experiences severe symptoms. Nevertheless, there is no evidence that a woman with endometriosis diving at other times is at any greater risk of diving-related disease than a person without this condition.


This is a surgical procedure in which the entire uterus is removed through the abdominal wall or through the vagina.

All that has been said about diving after a cesarean section (see “Return to Diving After Giving Birth,” above) applies to diving after general surgery, including a hysterectomy.

Women may resume diving after a hysterectomy, but they should wait until they have recovered general strength and fitness before they take the plunge – usually six to eight weeks, and sometimes longer.

Implications in Diving

As far as it relates to scuba diving, a hysterectomy is considered major surgery. It is recommended that anyone undergoing an abdominal surgery allow six to eight weeks of recovery before resuming diving. If the procedure is complicated in any way, by infection, anemia or other serious issues, it may be wise to further delay diving.

These recommendations apply to all types of hysterectomy:

  • Removing the uterus abdominally (total abdominal hysterectomy);
  • Removing the uterus vaginally (vaginal hysterectomy);
  • Removing the uterus plus the tubes and ovaries (hysterectomy plus salpingo-oophorectomy);
  • Removing the top of the uterus, but leaving the cervix intact (subtotal hysterectomy).

Breast Implants

Silicone and saline implants are used for cosmetic enhancement or augmentation of the normal breast size and shape of reconstruction, particularly after radical breast surgery for cancer or trauma.

In one study, by Dr. Richard Vann, Vice President of Research at DAN, mammary (breast) implants were placed in the Duke University Medical Center hyperbaric chamber. The study did not simulate the implant in human tissue. Three types were tested: silicone-, saline-, and silicone-saline-filled. In this experiment, the researchers simulated various depth / time profiles of recreational scuba diving. Here’s what they found: There was an insignificant increase in bubble size (1 to 4 percent) in both saline and silicone gel implants, depending on the depth and duration of the dive. The least volume change occurred in the saline-filled implant, because nitrogen is less soluble in saline than silicone.

The silicone-saline-filled type showed the greatest volume change. Bubble formation in implants led to a small volume increase, which is not likely to damage the implants or surrounding tissue. If gas bubbles do form in the implant, they resolve over time.

Implications in Diving

Once sufficient time has passed after surgery, when the diver has resumed normal activities and there is no danger of infection, she may begin scuba diving.

Breast implants do not pose a problem to diving from the standpoint of gas absorption or changes in size and are not a contraindication for participation in recreational scuba diving.

Avoid buoyancy compensators with constrictive chest straps, which can put undue pressure on the seams and contribute to risk of rupture.

Additional Considerations:

Breast implants filled with saline are neutrally buoyant. Silicone implants are heavier than water, however, and they may alter buoyancy and attitude (trim) in the water, particularly if the implants are large. Appropriate training and appropriate adjustment of weights help overcome these difficulties.

Premenstrual Syndrome

Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is a group of poorly understood and poorly defined psychophysiological symptoms experienced by many women (25 to 50 percent of women) at the end of the menstrual cycle, just prior to the menstrual flow.

PMS symptoms include mood swings, irritability, decreased mental alertness, tension, fatigue, depression, headaches, bloating, swelling, breast tenderness, joint pain and food cravings. Severe premenstrual syndrome has been found to exacerbate underlying emotional disorders. Although progesterone is used in some cases, no consistent, simple treatments are available.

Implications in Diving

Research has shown that accidents in general are more common among women during PMS. If women suffer from premenstrual syndrome, it may be wise to dive conservatively during this time. There is no scientific evidence, however, that they are more susceptible to decompression illness (DCI) or dive injuries/accidents.

Also, individuals with evidence of depression or antisocial tendencies should be evaluated for their fitness to participate in diving: they may pose a risk to themselves or a dive buddy.

Menstruation During Diving Activities

Menstruation is the cyclic, physiologic discharge through the vagina of blood and mucosal tissues from the non-pregnant uterus. The cycle is controlled hormonally and usually occurs at approximately four-week intervals. Symptoms may include pain, fluid retention, abdominal cramping and backache.

Implications in Diving

Are women at greater risk of experiencing decompression illness (DCI) while menstruating? Theoretically, it is possible that, because of fluid retention and tissue swelling, women are less able to get rid of dissolved nitrogen. This is, however, not definitively proven.

One recent retrospective review of women divers (956 divers) with DCI found 38 percent were menstruating at the time of their injury. Additionally, 85 percent of those taking oral contraceptives were menstruating at the time of the accident. This suggests, but does not prove, that women taking oral contraceptives are at increased risk of decompression illness during menstruation. Therefore, it may be advisable for menstruating women to dive more conservatively, particularly if they are taking oral contraceptives. This could involve making fewer dives, shorter and shallower dives and making longer safety stops. Four other studies have provided evidence that women are at higher risk of DCI, and in one study of altitude bends, menses also appeared to be a risk factor for bends.

In general, diving while menstruating does not seem to be a problem as long as normal, vigorous exercise does not increase the menstrual symptoms. As long as the menstrual cycle poses no other symptoms or discomforts that affect her health, there is no reason that a menstruating female should not dive. However, based upon available data, it may be prudent for women taking oral contraceptives, particularly if they are menstruating, to reduce their dive exposure (depth, bottom time or number of dives per day).

Oral Birth Control

An effective and widely used method of preventing pregnancy. There are several types of pills available and most contain a combination of synthetic estrogen-like and progesterone-like substances. These substances prevent the rise in luteinizing hormone, which leads to ovulation. Also, oral contraceptives thicken and chemically alter the cervical mucus, making the uterine endometrium less receptive to sperm.

Possible side effects of oral contraceptives during the initial therapy include nausea, vomiting, fluid retention, headaches and dizziness. Oral contraceptives may also be associated with an increase in blood pressure and an increased risk of thromboembolic disorders (development of clot-like vein occlusions, which can lead to an emboli).

Implications in Diving

It has been suggested that oral contraceptives may increase a diver’s susceptibility to decompression sickness (DCS) because of the hormonal changes, which may reduce venous tone and increase water retention. This could affect circulation and theoretically cause the blood to “sludge,” which may interfere with the elimination of nitrogen from the body. To date, no research has found evidence to support this belief.

In fact, unless oral contraceptives pose a clinical problem for women, there is no data to show that their use during recreational scuba diving is a contraindication.


Progesterone-Only Pills and Long-Acting Contraceptives

Progestins — similar to those used in injectable contraceptives — all progesterone mini pills and implants, have effects on inflammatory cells. High doses of progesterone have been found to help to stabilize cell membranes, and thereby limit inflammatory response to injury. If progestins act to limit inflammation, it might be postulated that they could help limit the damage caused by the inflammatory processes that follow tissue hypoxia in gas accidents. If true, we also might speculate that long acting or high-dose progestins might be the contraceptive of choice for women divers.

Barriers and Spermicides

Occasional questions arise about the possibility that the efficacy of barrier methods could be reduced by immersion and dilution of the spermicidal agents if water washes in and out of the vagina. The amount of flushing action in a wet suit is probably minimal; and obviously, is not a consideration for dry suits.


Intrauterine devices (IUDs) pose no hazard for the female diver. With use, however, menstrual flow is increased in amount and duration of flow. This can be a great inconvenience if a woman is diving in a remote locale or on a boat with no sanitary facilities or privacy.


To date, there have not been a significant pool of women who:

  • are post menopausal and at risk of osteoporosis (menopause average at 50, osteopenia at 60-65, and fractures starting at 70-75); and
  • have a significant diving experience including appropriate number of dives at profound depth which put them at risk for osteonecrosis.

Therefore, we have no data on coincident osteoporosis and osteonecrosis in women at risk (or men for that matter).

Implications in Diving

The pathophysiologic mechanisms leading to osteoporosis and osteonecrosis are different. Osteoporosis results from decreases in osteoblast activity and relative increase of osteoclast activity, resulting in bone resorption and demineralization. The infarction of the microcirculation of bone is the triggering mechanism for osteonecrosis.

Women are at increased risk for osteoporosis given that their overall lifetime peak bone mass is lower than men’s and that the loss of estrogen during menopause greatly accelerates the rate of bone demineralization.

All we can say at this point is that women should dive as conservatively as possible, thereby trying to minimize their risks of osteonecrosis, so as not to impose this bone damaging disease on top of their already increased risk of fracture due to Type I estrogen-dependent osteoporosis.

Donna M. Uguccioni, M.S., Richard Moon, M.D. and Maida Beth Taylor, M.D.