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High pressure treatment: Hyperbaric oxygen therapy can help some conditions

Using high pressure and increasing the amount of oxygen in the blood may help treat a variety of conditions.

The clear plastic chambers that deliver hyperbaric oxygen therapy, or HBOT, can seem a little like science fiction. But they are very real.

They were first used to treat deep-sea divers with decompression sickness, also known as the bends. And while research is ongoing, HBOT may help other conditions as well.

Raising the pressure

HBOT uses pressurized, pure oxygen to raise the oxygen content in the blood.

Treatment can take place in either single-person tubes or larger compartments, called multiplace chambers, that allow more than one person to be treated at a time.

Single-person chambers are gradually pressurized with pure oxygen, usually to about 2.5 times the normal atmospheric pressure. Sessions last from 45 minutes to five hours, and then the chamber is slowly depressurized.

Multiplace chambers are pressurized with air, and patients get the oxygen from a mask or other device.

Patients in multiplace chambers can also be accompanied by a healthcare professional.

How it might help

Increasing the amount of oxygen in the blood and tissues may have a variety of benefits. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the therapy for certain conditions, including:

The bends. HBOT helps treat decompression sickness by dissolving the dangerous nitrogen bubbles that form when a diver resurfaces too quickly after a deep dive.

Carbon monoxide poisoning. The therapy helps speed the elimination of this deadly gas from the blood. This helps minimize the problems with memory and concentration that often occur.

Thermal burns. HBOT may help treat burns caused by heat or fire.

According to medical experts, HBOT may also help the body recover from:

  • Chronic wounds or ulcers in people with diabetes.
  • Soft tissue and bone damage caused by radiation therapy.
  • Gas gangrene, an infection that progresses rapidly.
  • Crushing injuries.
  • Chronic bone inflammation (osteomyelitis).
  • Persistent wounds in which tissues are dying (necrosis).

What are the risks?

People who receive HBOT may have side effects. HBOT may cause temporary pain in the ears or sinuses as air expands and contracts.

More serious complications include temporary nearsightedness, seizures and lung damage. Sinus damage and a ruptured middle ear happen more often in people with upper respiratory infections.

People with severe heart failure, fever or certain types of lung disease may be at higher risk for complications.

Pregnant women should not be treated with HBOT unless there are no other options.

Health insurance, Medicare and Medicaid cover many uses of HBOT.

reviewed 1/14/2020

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