We all need oxygen to breathe, but did you realize what we breathe is only 21% oxygen? The rest of what we breathe is 78% nitrogen with the remaining 1% a mixture of other gases.
Did you know that if we breathed in much more oxygen, it could help with our body’s healing process? It’s true. In fact, a research-backed treatment already exists and is known as hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBO).
While the concept of hyperbaric oxygen has been around for decades — if not centuries, according to some reports — it became popular as a treatment using hyperbaric chambers in the early 20th century for scuba divers experiencing decompression sickness, also known as “the bends.”
From that point, hyperbaric oxygen therapy has evolved into an effective treatment for a variety of conditions, including carbon monoxide poisoning, gangrene, air and gas bubbles in blood vessels, infections of the skin and bones, burns, injuries, even hearing loss and sight loss.
But HBO is most commonly used for treating difficult wounds like diabetic ulcers as well as internal wounds that can develop following radiation cancer treatment.
The idea behind HBO therapy is that wounds and other injuries can heal faster in an environment that is 100% pure oxygen delivered at a pressure greater than normal. The good news is that this type of treatment is available at Doylestown Health’s Center for Wound Healing and Hyperbaric Medicine.
“When other wound treatment methods stop working, we can improve wound healing by increasing oxygenation of tissues,” explains Eric Marchant, MD, medical director of the Center. “For some patients who, for whatever reason need to have more oxygen perfused into the wound, this is one way of achieving that.”
Sometimes HBO will be incorporated into treatments that patients are already receiving, or it will be added to the end of their treatment, notes Krista Sorensen, RN, clinical program director at the Center. “For some patients, it makes just enough of a difference to get them moving in the right direction.”
How it Works
Patients who are candidates for HBO will receive the therapy in one of the hyperbaric chambers at the Center. These chambers resemble an MRI machine. The patient lies down in one and the technician closes the door. Then the patient breathes in pure oxygen and the additional pressure in the chamber increases the oxygen in the lungs, and therefore, in the blood, which promotes healing and even helps fight certain infections.
Patients are able to watch TV or sleep while they’re receiving the HBO treatment but are not allowed to use their phone or wear jewelry, as any metal is prohibited in a hyperbaric chamber for safety reasons.
Treatments usually last about 90 minutes and most patients need anywhere from 30 to 40 treatments to achieve results.
The reason treatments are so long lasting, explains Dr. Marchant, is because it takes a while to safely “submerge” patients to the necessary oxygen level. They aren’t going anywhere physically, it’s just the environment in the chamber that makes it feel that way.
“It takes time to pressurize the chamber to the prescribed treatment depth, which is calculated in feet of seawater or absolute atmospheres. Most patients treat at two atmospheres, equivalent to 33 feet of seawater to two-and-a-half atmospheres, equivalent to 49.5 feet of seawater,” Dr. Marchant explains.
Patients may experience the pressure they feel on an airplane, and their ears might pop as they get acclimated. “The amount of pressure and the amount of time depends on how well patients can acclimate to the right level of atmosphere pressure… They have to be able to clear their ears and sinuses,” says Krista. “It can take anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes to get a patient down to pressure and then about the same amount of time to bring them back ‘to the surface.’”
HBO therapy is noninvasive, generally safe and serious complications are rare, according to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. But because of the increased pressure and increased concentration of oxygen during HBO, potential risks include:
- Ear and sinus pain
- Middle ear injuries, including tympanic membrane rupture
- Temporary vision changes
- Lung collapse (rare)
To meet the highest standards of care in hyperbaric medicine, Doylestown Health’s Center for Wound Healing and Hyperbaric Medicine is accredited by the Undersea & Hyperbaric Medical Society. All staff members are trained and certified in HBO.
If you think you might be a candidate for hyperbaric oxygen therapy, talk to your doctor. In order for HBO treatments to be covered by insurance and Medicare, they must be considered a “medical necessity.” As a result, the Center has specific diagnoses that it can treat. Still, insurance coverage isn’t a guarantee and it’s important to note HBO can be quite costly even with insurance. “We make sure patients are aware of the cost of the treatment before we render it,” assures Krista.
- For more information about hyperbaric oxygen therapy, visit the Center for Wound Healing and Hyperbaric Medicine or call 267.885.1775.
Doylestown Health's Center for Wound Healing and Hyperbaric Medicine
Doylestown Health's Center for Wound Healing and Hyperbaric Medicine is an award- winning, state-of-the-art facility that expertly treats all types of non-healing wounds using individualized plan of care customized to the patient's specific healing goals, such as reducing time away from work and returning to normal activities. The team at Doylestown Health is able to heal even the most chronic types of wounds using advanced therapies that include negative pressure, bio-engineered tissues, biosynthetic dressings, and hyperbaric oxygen therapy.