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What the Hell is Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy

Updated on March 17, 2017
I used to operate a chamber just like that one. This photo taken 20+ years ago in 1986.
I used to operate a chamber just like that one. This photo taken 20+ years ago in 1986.

What is a Hyperbaric Oxygen Chamber?

Well, you can see in the picture that it's a cylinder. Hyperbaric chambers can take many shapes, however, and can accommodate almost any kind of patient, even animals. Often, they're compressed using 100% pure oxygen, though multi-person varieties will often compress using air and require patients to use oxygen hoods (sort of like a space helmet) so that the technician that gets compressed along with them doesn't get treated with oxygen as well.

There are two main mechanisms of action that could prove potentially beneficial to patients inside: the pressurization reduces the size of bubbles inside the body, thus making air bubbles smaller. This makes problems like the bends less painful and can allow the person to decompress slowly over time. Originally, hyperbaric chambers were created for this purpose, both for divers and for workers in caissons, which are huge pilings they would build underwater for bridges.

Even today, the technicians that run these in hospitals need to know how to read dive tables created by the Navy in case a patient comes in with the bends.

Caisson workers building the Brooklyn Bridge
Caisson workers building the Brooklyn Bridge

What is it Good For?

According to a variety of scholarly articles, absolutely something. As far as the UHMS (Undersea & Hyperbaric Medical Society) and Medicare guidelines are concerned, it can be used for the bends, various circulatory disorders and for several acute disorder such as carbon monoxide poisoning, radiation damage and failing limbs/ skin transplants/ amputations.

Some people, such as Michael Jackson and Keanu Reeves have used it as a method of defying aging. So many people have faith in this process that it makes even me wonder and I'm a skeptic even on a good day. That said, I have my own theories about which cutting-edge aging theories have merit.

Others use HBO as a treatment to speed up post-workout recovery. Here in Arlington, Texas, there's a hyperbaric clinic right outside the Dallas Cowboy's training field for this reason. To be fair, they're all over town. The UHMS and Medicare only reimburse you for specific disorders that it's been proven to help, but off-label, there's a whole host of possible uses for it including boosting healing of muscle tissue damage from excessive training, aging, MS, fatigue and in some cases low testosterone.

As a wound care tech, I got to see a lot of great recoveries as well as several heartbreaking failures. Sometimes, everything in the world isn't enough to save someone's foot or hand or even their life. We'd come in and work weekends sometimes to try and help someone, even though our clinic was outpatient and technically wasn't supposed to be open on weekends. That required our doctor to come in on his day off, nurses to come work and of course myself, the safety director/ equipment operator. This may not sound like much, but the people I worked with would have genuinely done it for free. Often, our doctor wouldn't bill people just to save them money if they truly needed help.

The flipside of the 'evil' healthcare industry is how amazing the people you meet there are. Sorry, just a tangent. There are aspects I disagree with wholeheartedly. That said, the patient-facing workers show compassion and love to people far beyond what you would expect.

My Take

I worked in wound care and gave patients HBO for 3 years, and in that time I accumulated a lot of information. On one hand, I saw someone whose radiation burns had rendered them unable to eat and was wasting away have their radiation sores closed as a direct result of their treatment. I remember the day she came in and said she had eaten a normal meal. she was crying, and several of the nurses cried with her because we had watched her wasting away for months.

On the other hand, we had a patient that we gave multiple treatments per day to, came in for on Saturdays and redressed multiple times per week lose his leg. We were all heartbroken and even afterward when his new amputation had healed, brought us food and would stop in to visit.

All in all, I would say that as long as there are no other complications, HBO has a good chance to heal lower extremity circulatory disorders as long as they're specifically related to decreased oxygenation. HBO has a good chance of improving the after effects of radiation damage to soft tissue. I've even seen it save someone's penis after a near-amputation.

The limitations are still present, however. Cigarette smokers will see decreased benefit as well as diabetics with poor blood sugar control. Mismanaged infections will see very little improvement in HBOT.

As for the off-label treatments, maybe someday after sufficient peer-reviewed evidence exists, they'll be widely accepted. Otherwise, those therapies will always be performed for cash outside of hospitals where someone could intervene if something were to go wrong.


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    • jimmyglaughlin profile image

      Jim Laughlin 10 months ago from Connecticut

      Wow, really interesting. I could probably use one of these chambers for my crps.