Message 41: The Bends and The Bends

Radiohead’s second album was entitled The Bends. The “bends” is another name for Caisson disease or decompression sickness. According to the OED, the word “caisson” originally meant a chest for the transportation of explosives or ammunition, but around 1753 the word came to mean a large water-tight case or chest used in laying foundations of bridges in deep water.

With the disease, nitrogen gas bubbles form in the body as the result of rapid transition from a high to a low pressure environment. When the bubbles form in a victim’s joints, he or she is said to have the “bends” because they are unable to straighten their limbs. Other problems caused by the disease include paralysis, convulsions, difficulties with muscle coordination and sensory abnormalities, numbness, nausea, speech defects, and personality changes.

Historically, the disease is relatively new. Beginning in the early 1800s, caissons were sunk to a lake or river bottom and pressurized with air to create a watertight compartment for workers excavating bridge foundations. By the mid-1800s doctors observed that the duration of exposure to the caisson’s increased air pressure and the worker’s speed of ascent correlated with development of joint pains.

More generally, one could argue that the disease results from the conflict of human biological limitations and technological innovation.

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