Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy: Uses, Benefits, Side-Effects

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) benefits have been noticed since the 1930s. During that time, the US military used it to treat decompression sickness, a condition caused by deep-sea diving. Since then, hyperbaric chambers have been approved to treat 13 conditions, and doctors are looking to add more to the list.

Key takeaways:
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    Hyperbaric oxygen therapy can supplement and encourage faster healing in many conditions including abscesses, autism, depression, bone infections, stroke, concussion, anoxic brain injuries, and others.
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    HBOT may also be effective in reducing the physical signs of aging by increasing collagen production and telomere length.
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    A typical HBOT session will last between 3 minutes and 2 hours depending on the severity of your condition.
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    The treatment can be repeated daily for up to 4–6 weeks for the best results.
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    Consult your doctor to see if you could benefit from hyperbaric oxygen therapy, and to learn more about your treatment options.

Ongoing research into HBOT has shown promising results in several other conditions. There are currently 216 clinical trials that are ongoing or have been completed on the efficacy of HBOT for various health conditions. In this article, you will learn about hyperbaric oxygen therapy's benefits and what conditions it’s used to treat.

What is hyperbaric oxygen therapy?

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy offers benefits for many conditions by providing the body with additional oxygen at increased pressure levels. It’s especially useful since everything in our body relies on oxygen to work properly.

The air that we breathe is made of only 21% oxygen, the other 78% is nitrogen. In a hyperbaric chamber, the oxygen levels are increased to 100%. To enhance the healing benefits of pure oxygen, hyperbaric chambers also increase the atmospheric pressure on your body by 2-3 times the normal levels.

HBOT treatments can take anywhere from 3 minutes to 2 hours, not accounting for the time it takes to equalize pressure in the chamber. For most conditions, you will need to have between 20–30 treatments over 4–6 weeks.

Benefits of hyperbaric oxygen therapy

As more research is performed, doctors are beginning to use HBOT to treat a growing number of conditions. Some studies have shown that hyperbaric oxygen therapy used for cancer can inhibit cancer growth and may make chemotherapy and radiation treatments more effective.

Current studies on using hyperbaric oxygen therapy for autism symptoms, depression, and PTSD treatments have also shown promise. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy benefits are also useful for these conditions:

  • Air or gas embolisms;
  • Bone infections;
  • Brain abscesses;
  • Burns;
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning;
  • Diabetic wounds;
  • Decompression sickness;
  • Flesh-eating bacteria;
  • Gangrene;
  • Radiation injuries;
  • Severe anemia;
  • Severe inflammation;
  • Skin graft;
  • Sudden deafness;
  • Traumatic brain injury.

Wound healing

One of the most common uses for hyperbaric oxygen therapy is for treating wounds that are resistant to other methods of care. These wounds include radiation injuries, diabetic wounds (particularly, diabetic foot wounds), traumatic surgical injuries, abscesses, bone infections, gangrene, and wounds caused by flesh-eating bacteria.

Most of these injuries affect the body’s immune system which inhibits the body’s ability to fight off infection. HBOT works by suffusing the white and red cells in your body with oxygen which helps stimulate them into action. This helps to kickstart the healing process.

Increased blood flow and circulation

Other hyperbaric oxygen therapy benefits include that it can help to increase blood flow and circulation by suffusing plasma with excess oxygen. Although the process constricts blood vessels in the body, it makes the blood cells themselves significantly more efficient.

Because the plasma and blood cells in the body are hyper-oxygenated, they can transfer oxygen through the circulatory system much more effectively. This has also been shown to have a positive effect on the central nervous system and provides the cerebrum with more oxygen than it would otherwise receive.

Reduced pain and swelling

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy has been used to help patients recover from strokes, concussions, and anoxic brain injuries. Patients showed significant improvement in cognitive function, verbal skills, and memory recall after HBOT.

The treatment works by increasing oxygen circulation and capillary development in the damaged areas of the brain. This allows the body to heal damaged blood vessels and tissues and may be able to reduce post-stroke cellular necrosis.

Improved hair growth

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy benefits hair growth after hair transplant or hair restoration surgeries. The treatment helps to improve oxygenation to blood vessels which helps to improve collagen production.

In turn, this promotes hair follicle growth in addition to reducing the appearance of scars, scabs, and bruising that may occur as a result of the surgery. In patients with alopecia, studies showed that HBOT can significantly reduce itching and folliculitis.

Treating depression

Nearly 280 million people worldwide experience depression, making up 3.8% of the population. Recently, hyperbaric oxygen therapy has been used for depression symptoms, and it is believed to have an impact on neurotransmitters.

Additionally, when combined with SSRIs, hyperbaric oxygen therapy may help stimulate serotonin production by repairing damaged neurons in the brain. This is done by increasing oxygen flow to affected areas which may help activate stem cell function.

Anti-aging effects

A recent study on the effects of hyperbaric oxygen therapy and aging revealed that hyperbaric oxygen therapy benefits skin health. The study determined there were skin benefits that included an increase in collagen density, elastic fiber density, and the number of blood vessels after 1–2 weeks of HBOT.

A separate study showed a 20% increase in telomere length after 30 HBOT sessions which strongly indicates the potential for anti-aging benefits. Although more research must be done to determine the extent of these benefits, the science behind them is promising.

Possible side-effects of hyperbaric oxygen therapy

When treated at a regulated and approved treatment center, hyperbaric oxygen therapy side effects are rare and usually mild. Complications become more common if the treatment lasts for longer than 2 hours, or if the internal pressure of the chamber is three times greater than the outside pressure.

Typical side-effects of hyperbaric oxygen therapy include temporary vision changes that can cause nearsightedness, fatigue, lightheadedness, ear popping, and sinus pain. Rarely, more severe complications can occur due to the intense pressure in the chamber which can cause lung damage, rupturing of the eardrum, or oxygen poisoning.

Depending on the reason for the treatment, most patients will be able to resume normal activities after HBOT. For some, hyperbaric oxygen therapy can cause ear problems for a short time.

Contraindications to Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy

Although most patients tolerate HBOT and benefit from treatment, certain conditions can make HBOT more dangerous. If you have any of the following conditions, be sure to consult your doctor before treatment.

  • Pneumothorax;
  • COPD;
  • Asthma;
  • High fever;
  • Epilepsy;
  • Sinus issues or problems with the ears that prevent pressure equalizing in the chamber;
  • Pregnancy;
  • Claustrophobia;
  • History of eye surgery;
  • History of thoracic surgery;
  • Diabetes Mellitus;
  • Implanted devices such as defibrillators, epidural pain pumps, etc.

The contraindications mentioned above are not absolute, with the exception of pneumothorax due to the increased pressure placed upon the lungs. Many of these conditions will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to determine the risk of the treatment versus the benefit of therapy.

Final thoughts

Although hyperbaric oxygen therapy is not appropriate for everyone, it may be beneficial for certain conditions. It is important to be completely honest with your doctor about your medical history and to inform them of any changes to your health on the day of the procedure.

As HBOT continues to become a more widely accepted treatment method for more common health conditions, your doctor may advise trying it. Research continues to prove the efficacy of HBOT, although there are still dozens of studies in progress.

Weigh the benefits and risks of treatment with your provider, and be sure to research the treatment center that you choose before treatment.

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