If you have a wound that’s not healing properly or is healing slowly, you might benefit from hyperbaric oxygen therapy. With these treatments, you breathe in pure oxygen that’s under two to three times as much air pressure as normal. Your lungs take in this extra oxygen and send it to your blood, where it circulates throughout your body and promotes healing.
It might sound like a new treatment, but it’s been around for a long time, and it’s well-established. Darcie Groeper, DO, a hyperbaric medicine specialist at Banner Health in Arizona, said researchers studied it as far back as the 1800s. In the 1940s, it was used to treat deep sea divers, and by the 1960s, it helped people recover from carbon monoxide poisoning. Today it’s used to treat a range of health conditions. Dr. Groeper answered some of our questions about the therapy.
How is hyperbaric oxygen therapy used?
Doctors use this treatment in wound clinics to promote healing with more oxygen and blood flow. Tissue that’s injured needs extra oxygen. “By manipulating oxygen and pressure, we create changes in the body,” Dr. Groeper said. These changes help your body release growth factors and stem cells that can help you heal.
What conditions can it treat?
Most commonly, it’s used for:
- Diabetic foot ulcers that aren’t healing with standard treatment
- Chronic bone infections
- Radiation injuries
- Failed skin grafts
It can also be used to treat carbon monoxide poisoning, cyanide poisoning and certain other injuries and infections, like crush injuries or traumatic reduced blood flow in the arteries. Outside of wound clinics, hyperbaric oxygen therapy can treat decompression illness in scuba divers.
What is the treatment process like?
“Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is a very comfortable process,” Dr. Groeper said. You’ll change into a hospital gown and relax in a large, see-through chamber. Most treatments last two hours. You can’t bring your cell phone or other electronics into the chamber. “People usually nap or watch TV during the process,” she said.
You might notice pressure in your ears, similar to what you feel when you change elevation or fly in an airplane. Generally, yawning will alleviate the pressure.
After your treatment, the staff will check vital signs such as your pulse and blood pressure and, if you have diabetes, your glucose level. When you’re finished, you can get dressed and resume your normal activities.
How many treatments are typically needed?
You need a series of treatments since each treatment builds on the benefits of the previous treatment. The number can vary, but for wound healing, most people have about 40 treatments, or “dives,” over the course of two months.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is often used along with other treatment options—these can vary depending on your specific medical condition.
Is hyperbaric oxygen therapy for you?
A physician in the clinic will see you to make sure you have the appropriate diagnosis and check that there’s no reason the treatment isn’t a good choice for you. When you’re there, the staff will explain the treatments and process and give you a tour of the chambers.
Are there any risks?
“A collapsed lung is the only absolute risk,” Dr. Groeper said. You may notice side effects such as eardrum, sinus or vision problems, but they are easy to manage.
The bottom line
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is a well-established treatment for wound healing, decompression sickness, carbon monoxide poisoning and other conditions. For treatments, you simply relax in a chamber while you breathe in pure, pressurized oxygen. To find out whether the therapy might work for you, connect with a health care professional at Banner.
Other useful articles
- Diabetes Wound Care: Tips for Healing and Prevention
- From Eyes to Toes, 8 Ways Diabetes Can Harm Your Health
- 5 Warnings for “Carbon Monoxide Season"