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Patent foramen ovale and scuba diving: a practical guide for physicians on when to refer for screening

Oliver Sykes1* and James E Clark2

Author Affiliations

1 London Hyperbaric Medicine, Whipp's Cross University Hospital, London E11 1NR, UK

2 Centre of Human & Aerospace Physiological Sciences, King's College, London SE1 1UL, UK

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Extreme Physiology & Medicine 2013, 2:10  doi:10.1186/2046-7648-2-10

Published: 1 April 2013


Divers are taught some basic physiology during their training. There is therefore some underlying knowledge and understandable concern in the diving community about the presence of a patent foramen ovale (PFO) as a cause of decompression illness (DCI). There is an agreement that PFO screening should not be done routinely on all divers; however, when to screen selected divers is not clear. We present the basic physiology and current existing guidelines for doctors, advice on the management and identify which groups of divers should be referred for consideration of PFO screening. Venous bubbles after diving and right to left shunts are common, but DCI is rare. Why this is the case is not clear, but the divers look to doctors for guidance on PFO screening and closure; both of which are not without risks. Ideally, we should advise and apply guidelines that are consistent and based on best available evidence. We hope this guideline and flow chart helps address these issues with regard to PFOs and diving.

Patent foramen ovale; Decompression illness; Arterial gas embolism; Screening