Have you ever heard of “the bends?” It is a condition that happens to divers, when they come up from underwater too quickly and the change in pressure causes bubbles to form in the body. They usually end up bending over in pain, or having “the bends.” The more formal name is decompression sickness or generalized barotrauma.
The treatment for decompression sickness is with hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT). This treatment exposes you to almost 100% pure oxygen in a pressurized chamber for up to two hours per session. While it is commonly used for recovery from barotrauma, it’s also a recognized treatment option for several other medical conditions.
Whether or not you love to dive, HBOT might be a viable treatment option for you. Let’s look at the benefits of HBOT, what to expect when you go to a session, potential side effects, and the cost of hyperbaric therapy.
Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy Benefits
The main benefit of hyperbaric oxygen therapy is maximizing oxygen intake into your body. When you get this extra dose of oxygen, your body’s ability to battle bad bacteria increases. This extra oxygen also helps induce stem cell production and growth factors.
There is some controversy over what benefits HBOT has for certain conditions and situations, however, which I’ll get back to in the final section of this article.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved HBOT for the following conditions:
- Decompression Illness/Sickness
- Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
- Heat/Fire Burns
- Air or Gas Embolism
- Brain/Sinus Infections
- Skin Grafts
- Radiation Injury (think Cancer Treatment)
- Low Blood Flow in the Arteries
- Bone Marrow Infection
- Infections from Soft Tissue Necrosis
- Anemia from Harsh Blood Loss
- Crush Injury Relief, like with Acute Traumatic Ischemia
- Gas Gangrene
When your system is in shock as a result of a dramatic pressure change, air bubbles form. Exposure to extra oxygen helps get rid of those air bubbles, relieving the pain you feel. But extra oxygen is also great for blood, bone, and skin conditions.
What Happens at a Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy Session?
When you go in for an HBOT session, you will either be in a single-person unit that looks like a clear plastic chamber, or you will share a hyperbaric oxygen room with several other people. If you are in the multi-person HBOT unit, you will most likely either sit or lie down and use a mask or clear hood to receive your oxygen. Nowadays, there is even an in-home treatment where a physician will bring a portable HBOT chamber to you!
You’ll have to take off your jewelry and/or metal accessories, wash off certain skin care products, and leave your phone outside of the chamber.
The licensed practitioner will begin the session by increasing the air pressure in the chamber or room by two or three times the normal amount of air pressure. Therapy can last from a few minutes to two hours per session. You typically don’t see results until after multiple sessions. Your results also depend on the type of condition you’re treating — some take longer than others to respond to the treatment.
Hyperbaric Chamber Side Effects
Like all medical treatments, HBOT isn’t without its side effects or complications. Sitting in a pressurized chamber or room with that much oxygen can have severe impacts on your body if the oxygen dose isn’t carefully chosen for your specific condition. The most common side effects tend to be lightheadedness and fatigue, which usually happen right after the session is over.
Other severe complications that can arise from HBOT include:
- Lung damage
- Fluid buildup or rupture of the middle ear
- Damage to sinuses
- Changes in vision
- Oxygen poisoning
Typically, therapy doesn’t last longer than 2 hours, and you may take frequent breaks during your session. Practitioners are usually careful to limit your HBOT session to only as much as you need, so you’re less likely to have any of the severe complications listed above. For the most part, HBOT side effects are mild.
Another thing to consider with hyperbaric chambers is claustrophobia. If the thought of lying in a confined space makes you nervous, then you may reconsider hyperbaric therapy. Even people who don’t normally consider themselves claustrophobic could start feeling uncomfortable with HBOT. You can opt for a pressurized room rather than a chamber, however, if your healthcare provider makes it available to you.
Is HBOT Worth The Price Tag?
For FDA-approved HBOT treatments, your insurance, Medicare, and Medicaid most likely have hyperbaric oxygen therapy as an option. If you have a condition approved by the FDA for HBOT use, you should definitely ask your doctor first before starting sessions. The oxygen dosage varies for each person, and your healthcare provider can ensure you get the right amount for your specific needs.
For those without insurance, hyperbaric therapy can be expensive. To gain the full benefit, you will most likely need to attend multiple sessions. Sessions can start at $250 a piece or more, and an entire HBOT package could even cost you as much as $10,000 depending on your provider.
Is HBOT worth the price? It is if your life depends on it! However, if it’s not the only treatment option available to you, and your insurance doesn’t cover it, then it’s worth it to explore other treatments before forking over that kind of cash.
Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy Controversies
The FDA claims that hyperbaric oxygen therapy is officially approved for certain medical conditions (see above). The organization only approves certain conditions because there’s worry that certain service providers provide HBOT to patients who have opportunities for other, more effective treatments for their condition. For some patients, HBOT could even worsen their conditions.
For example, some people claim that HBOT can help relieve or cure depression. Studies are still being conducted, initial research suggests that the effects of HBOT on depression are similar to those of psychotherapy. If that’s true, then someone with depression would be better off avoiding HBOT and all the possible side effects, if they can receive adequate treatment from psychotherapy.
Also, some clinics or therapy centers have claimed that HBOT can help with AIDS and cancer. However, there isn’t a lot of scientific evidence yet to back up those claims.
Pushing the boundaries of conventional wisdom gives us more options to improve our lives and our health. As research is ongoing about HBOT and other medical conditions, we may discover that it does have benefits for those problems. As with anything involving our health and bodies, it’s always best to consider things with your doctor or health professional.
Never be afraid to try something new, but always know the risks!
XO – Serena