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What is hyperbaric oxygen?

If you’re a fan of Grey’s Anatomy, House, The Resident, and more, you might have heard of a hyperbaric oxygen chamber. But how does it work? What does hyperbaric oxygen do for patients?

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) is the procedure that patients go through in order to breathe pure oxygen in a pressurized environment. This treatment is used to help with problems such as decompression sickness, which is a common problem that occurs after scuba diving. It also treats other things like serious infections, air embolisms (when an air bubble gets trapped in your blood vessels), and wounds that do not heal due to diabetes or a radiation injury. In 1662, the first hyperbaric oxygen chamber was developed - it was a series of large bellows and valves. The belief was that the room could help treat respiratory diseases. This treatment was first used in the United States in the 20th century when Orville Cunningham used pure oxygen to successfully treat someone dying of the flu. The treatment shot up in the 1940s when the United States Navy used hyperbaric oxygen therapy to treat deep-sea divers that had developed decompression sickness. The FDA has approved hyperbaric oxygen therapy for only 13 conditions, but many people are calling for more to be added to the list. Some people have taken to calling this treatment a “miracle cure” for a wide range of health-related problems.

In a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, the air is increased to a much higher pressure than we experience in our everyday atmosphere, about two to three times more pressurized. Because of the extra pressure, your lungs are able to gather and maintain much more oxygen, especially pure oxygen. The goal of this treatment is to help the blood fill with more oxygen than normal in order to help the healing process of tissues that have been deprived of oxygen.

Wound injuries cause damage to the blood vessels, which then release fluid causing the body’s tissues to swell, therefore causing the tissues to become oxygen-deprived. Your body needs oxygen to function, so when tissues that are trying to heal are deprived of an adequate amount of oxygen, sometimes the tissues can take much longer to heal causing infection or they could even die as a result of low oxygen levels. Hyperbaric oxygen can also block bacteria and infection from becoming harmful in the body, helping the body fight off infection and improve the quality of white blood cells. During hyperbaric oxygen therapy, the increased air pressure can make your ears feel extremely full - almost as if they are about to pop. There are two types of oxygen chambers - chambers designed for one person, and chambers designed for multiple people at a time. A monoplane unit, designed for one person, has a table you lie down on and then you slide into a plastic chamber. A multi-person hyperbaric chamber usually looks like a large hospital room. Usually, people are sitting reclined, and oxygen can be received through a mask or a clear plastic hood placed over your face. In either case, the results are the same and the treatment lasts about two hours.

To find results from oxygen therapy, you will need more than one session, depending on the type of medical condition that you have. For problems like carbon monoxide poisoning, it can take as little as two to three sessions, whereas if you have problems like non-healing wounds, you might have 40 or more sessions.

Although hyperbaric oxygen is helpful, it is not for everyone. If a patient has suffered from recent ear trauma or surgery, a cold or fever, or lung disease, it should not be used. Very rarely are there side effects or complications from hyperbaric oxygen, but the most common is trauma to the middle ear. Other complications can include eye damage and sinus problems, but the most serious case is oxygen poisoning, which can lead to seizures, fluid in the lungs, lung failure, or other issues. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy should only be prescribed by a healthcare provider, and there is often a long discussion with your healthcare provider on this type of treatment.

There is still lots of controversy about the treatment, but many people are calling for the FDA to approve hyperbaric oxygen therapy for autism, ADHD, cerebral palsy, PTSD, and more. The FDA still advises against using hyperbaric oxygen therapy for uses other than the ones they have defined as if the therapy is used on other ailments it may make the problems worse. Other healthcare providers say that hyperbaric oxygen should be tested to become a mainstream option for all different types of conditions. The research about hyperbaric oxygen and its usefulness still continue, however, the FDA requires more evidence before they can clear the uses of hyperbaric oxygen safe and effective.


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