The breath – and oxygen – is a rare constant that stays with us throughout life. In fact, oxygen sustains life. It’s key to cellular energy production and the brain can only last five minutes without it.
Given that our entire existence is dependent upon this molecule, could there be any health benefit to getting more oxygen?
According to research, in certain circumstances…yes.
Find out how hyperbaric chambers are used to deliver oxygen therapy and how it can benefit a number of diseases.
What is hyberbaric oxygen therapy?
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) is rumored to date back to the 1600’s, when an innovative clergyman experimented with atmospheric pressure to treat illness.
While this story is perhaps apocryphal, it does suggest that humans have intuited the effect of atmospheric pressure and oxygen on the body for some time.
More recently in the 1930’s, the military re-examined hyperbaric chambers to treat deep-sea divers with ‘the bends’. They discovered that this therapy had further benefits to dissipating the trapped gases of these divers; it also appeared to accelerate wound healing.
HBOT has evolved since these early days. Today, it involves immersing the entire body within an airtight chamber that is calibrated to a higher atmospheric pressure. This is usually between 1.5 to 3 times higher than standard air pressure. During treatment, patients inhale pure oxygen. This pure hit of O2, combined with increased air pressure, causes haemoglobin to become super-saturated with oxygen. It’s an ultra high dose of oxygen to the cells in your body.
The rationale behind HBOT is that this increased oxygen delivery to your cells and tissues can help the body to fight infection and reduce injury. Furthermore, HBOT may reduce inflammatory markers.
What is HBOT used for?
The FDA currently acknowledges thirteen conditions which are responsive to HBOT. These range from carbon monoxide poisoning, through to treating severe burns. However, here are a few common conditions which are responsive to HBOT:
Gangrene. HBOT has been shown to lower swelling and reduce the spread of infection in gangrenous tissues.
Osteomyelitis. This nasty bone infection can cause ischemia. HBOT boosts oxygenation to the affected site, supporting immune function and strengthening osteoclasts (the cells that remove old bone tissue).
Anemia/blood loss. HBOT can improve the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood. It may also aid the body in building capillaries.
Tissue injury, such as skin grafts and flaps. Hypoxia (reduced oxygen levels) is part of the pathophysiology underlying poor-healing skin grafts and flaps. HBOT has been shown to increase wound healing under such circumstances.
Research into the potential benefits of HBOT to relieve migraine and inflammatory bowel disease are also exciting; it’s something to follow as more evidence emerges.
What are the risks involved in HBOT?
Hyperbaric chambers are classified by the FDA as a Class 2 medical device. As such, use of a regulated chamber can only be prescribed by physicians.
Like any health intervention, there are some risks involved. These risks involve potential vision changes, middle ear damage, lung collapse or in extreme cases seizure, embolism or paralysis.
However, when performed correctly with medically trained staff, HBOT is generally considered to be safe. Most side-effects consist of ear pressure or popping during treatment. Some people may also require intermittent breaks of ‘normal’ air.
Experts warn that board-certified health care providers who can safely deliver HBOT are far and few between in the U.S.A. Before treatment, ask your physician if they have undergone specialist training from the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society. To err on the safe side, also ask to see their Certification of Completion.
In an unregulated environment outside of a hospital with an untrained professional, HBOT can be unsafe, with experts warning that unlicensed chambers may pose a high fire/explosion risk. However in a safe, regulated environment, HBOT can offer a host of benefits!