It’s no surprise that oxygen is essential for health. Every cell in our bodies needs it for functions such as digesting food, producing energy and thinking clearly. It’s also important for healing wounds, and that’s where a technology called hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) comes in.
“Injured tissue needs even more oxygen,” said Greg Salisbury, director of Community Wound Healing and Hyperbaric Center. “Hyperbaric oxygen therapy promotes healing by raising the amount of oxygen in your blood.”
A pressure chamber
Oxygen is traditionally given to patients through a mask or a nasal cannula – a device with a tube attached to an oxygen tank. While this is helpful for supplementing oxygen for people with certain heart or lung problems, it can’t deliver the amount needed to aid wound healing. For that, pure oxygen must be given under pressure. And that’s what happens in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber.
“With this therapy, the air pressure inside the tank is increased to two-and-a-half to three times higher than normal air pressure,” Salisbury said. This allows more oxygen to enter the blood, and in a way that makes it more available to the damaged tissue.
The process goes like this. The technician will check your vital signs, listen to your lungs and examine the inside of your ears. This is to make sure you don’t have any condition that could worsen during the therapy. Inside the clear chamber, you lie on a comfortable table in a hospital gown.
HBOT chambers range from tube-shaped devices for one person to rooms that can accommodate several patients at a time. The chamber or room is slowly pressurized with 100 percent oxygen as you watch TV or listen to music. You may feel pressure in your ears similar to what happens during an airplane flight, and you can clear it the same way – by swallowing, yawning or moving your jaw.
Throughout the session your blood absorbs the extra oxygen and carries it to the wound. Sessions last about two hours and most people typically have one treatment per weekday.
Healing wounds and more
According to the National Institutes of Health, HBOT can be an effective treatment for:
- wounds that have not healed with other treatments. That can include diabetic foot ulcers, bed sores, traumatic injuries and others
- crush injuries
- damage from radiation therapy for cancer
- skin grafts in danger of failing
- necrotizing infections in soft tissue (also called flesh-eating infections)
- bone infections
- gas gangrene
- carbon monoxide poisoning
- cyanide poisoning
HBOT also is used for a condition called decompression sickness. This can happen to divers if they return to the surface too quickly after a deep dive. Nitrogen that was dissolved in the blood from the higher underwater pressure forms bubbles as the pressure decreases. This painful condition is also called the bends.
Some claims about HBOT benefits have not been proven. For example, it probably doesn’t help with allergies, depression, fibromyalgia, migraine, autism, hepatitis, heart disease or stroke. Be careful of clinics that claim to treat these conditions with HBOT.
Part of a program
HBOT can relieve carbon monoxide poisoning and the bends by itself. For wounds, though, it doesn’t work alone. Primary care doctors often refer patients with problem wounds to wound care centers for HBOT and other treatments. This typically includes an assessment by a specially trained physician as well as consultations with dietitians, diabetes educators and other specialists. Depending on the type of wound, you may need specialized wound dressings, grafting, a specific type of debridement or other care. It’s best to choose a center that’s part of a hospital, where you can ensure that you will be treated by highly trained caregivers – especially for HBOT.
Medicare and most private insurance companies cover HBOT for many types of chronic, non-healing wounds. But it’s still a good idea to check with your insurance provider first. You also should talk to your doctor about all the options for treating your condition, and whether HBOT is right for you.