Hyperbaric oxygen therapy


Overview

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy has helped heal a variety of illnesses. Research has shown that it can treat many conditions that involve oxygen-starved tissue.

You can get hyperbaric oxygen therapy in either a single-person chamber or tube, or a larger chamber that holds several people at a time. The chamber is pumped full of pure oxygen, and the pressure rises to 2.5 times that of normal air pressure. It's used to treat sick scuba divers and people suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning, including firefighters and miners, but it also has been approved for more than a dozen ailments ranging from burns to bone disease.

Procedure

Only a doctor or health provider should prescribe hyperbaric oxygen therapy. A number of hospitals offer hyperbaric oxygen chambers, where people relax, sit, or lie comfortably and take deep breaths in sessions that last up to two hours.

Your ears may feel plugged as the pressure is raised, just as when you're in an airplane or the mountains. Simple swallowing or chewing gum will "pop" the ears back to normal hearing levels.

Your blood carries the extra oxygen throughout the body, infusing the injured tissues that need more oxygen so they can begin healing. When a session is complete, you may feel lightheaded. Mild side effects include claustrophobia, fatigue, and headaches.

Several sessions may be needed, so check beforehand to see whether your insurance company or Medicare covers the cost.

Types

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy uses two types of chambers:

  • Monoplace chamber - This is a chamber built for one person. It's a seven-foot-long clear plastic tube that resembles an MRI machine. The patient slips into the device, which is slowly pressurized with 100 percent oxygen.

  • Multiplace chamber - This chamber, or room, can fit two or more people people at once. The treatment is largely the same, except that people breathe pure oxygen through masks or hoods.

Uses

  • HBOT helps wound healing by bringing oxygen-rich plasma to tissue starved for oxygen. Wound injuries damage the body's blood vessels, which release fluid that leaks into the tissues and causes swelling. This swelling deprives the damaged cells of oxygen, and tissue starts to die. HBOT reduces swelling while flooding the tissues with oxygen—the elevated pressure in the chamber can produce a 10- to 15-fold increase in the amount of oxygen in the blood. HBOT aims to break the cycle of swelling, oxygen starvation, and tissue death.

  • HBOT prevents reperfusion injury. Reperfusion injury is the severe tissue damage that occurs when the blood supply returns to the tissues after they have been deprived of oxygen. When blood flow is interrupted by a crush injury, for instance, a cascade of events inside the damaged cells leads to the release of harmful oxygen radicals. These molecules can do irreversible damage to tissues and cause the blood vessels to clamp up and stop blood flow. HBOT encourages the body's oxygen radical scavengers to seek out the problem molecules and thus allow healing to proceed.

  • HBOT helps block the action of harmful bacteria and strengthens the body's immune system. HBOT can inactivate the toxins of certain bacteria. It also increases oxygen concentration in the tissues, which helps them resist infection. In addition, the therapy improves the ability of white blood cells to find and destroy invaders.

  • HBOT encourages the formation of new collagen (connective tissue) and new skin cells. It does so by encouraging new blood vessel formation. It also stimulates cells to produce certain substances, like vascular endothelial growth factor, which attract and stimulate endothelial cells necessary for healing.