- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Hyperbaric oxygen chambers came into serious vogue during the 1960s, when doctors began using them to treat divers suffering from the bends — the influx of nitrogen bubbles that can be life-threatening if not treated.

Researchers quickly saw other benefits from treating patients with a steady flow of oxygen, but so, too, did others who wanted to peddle the chamber as a cure-all for everything from multiple sclerosis to cerebral palsy.

The device also enjoyed an unflattering connection to the King of Pop when a picture of Michael Jackson snoozing in such a chamber hit the press years ago.

Gossip sections aside, the jury is still out on what more uses can be derived from chamber therapy, but for certain medical conditions, it can be a lifesaving treatment.

The recent mining tragedy in West Virginia, in which just one of 13 miners survived 42 hours underground, showcased the healing power of chamber therapy. Though 26-year-old Randal McCloy remains hospitalized, he might not have made it if not for the pressurized treatments he received to help him fight off carbon monoxide poisoning. Mr. McCloy underwent three hyperbaric oxygen treatments to reverse both the carbon monoxide poisoning and oxygen deprivation.

Dr. Robert Rosenthal, chief of hyperbaric medicine with the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, says the process behind hyperbaric oxygen chambers is as simple as its many uses can be complicated.

“It’s breathing oxygen under increasing pressure, which causes the oxygen to dissolve in your blood independent of hemoglobin,” Dr. Rosenthal says. Normally, hemoglobin in the blood carries oxygen throughout the body. “Oxygen reaches places where it normally can’t reach,” he adds, such as through a blocked vessel.

The chamber itself can vary wildly from one unit to the next. Some units allow only one person to “dive,” or receive pressurized treatment, at a time, while larger models accommodate more than 10 persons, including medical staffers, who can respond to any rare medical complication that theoretically could occur. The medical staffers are not adversely affected.

Units equipped with heating and cooling let the chamber occupant enjoy a shorter treatment time. Older models, which lack temperature gauges, require more time to use, Dr. Rosenthal says. Increasing pressure levels can yield warmer temperatures inside the chamber.

For divers suffering from the bends, a hyperbaric oxygen treatment breaks up nitrogen bubbles that could create neurological blockages and heart attacks. It puts the bubbles under pressure to shrink them.

The chambers also can be used by doctors treating diabetes patients with non-healing wounds. These sufferers often have problems involving blood flow to the extremities, a condition that oxygen treatment can help.

The measures can speed up the healing, Dr. Rosenthal says, and in some cases prevent amputation.

Treatments can vary greatly in time. Some sessions last just half an hour, while others can go up to two hours at a time. Repeated treatments may be needed for those with significant conditions.

Michael Capria, president of Tampa Hyperbaric Enterprise in Tampa, Fla., says most of us have been in a version of a hyperbaric chamber at one point.

“A plane is essentially a hyperbaric chamber 30,000 feet in the air, where there’s hardly any air pressure, but it’s comfortable in a cabin which is pressurized higher than the outside,” says Mr. Capria, whose company sells six-man chambers to physicians with free-standing clinics.

Mr. Capria’s clients use the chambers to treat wounds, gangrene and flesh-eating germs and to help those recovering from radiation treatments. With the latter, the good tissue is damaged along with the bad, he says.

One condition that can’t be addressed by oxygen therapy is asthma or such breathing related issues, says Dr. Jim Tracy, an Omaha-based asthma specialist.

The former Air Force flight surgeon says conditions such as asthma or emphysema involve complications ushering air in and out of the body. The problem doesn’t involve moving oxygen already in the body, where oxygen therapies can be of service.

One instance in which oxygen treatments can be helpful, Dr. Tracy says, is in dealing with anaerobic bacteria.

Increasing oxygen in the tissue can arrest bacterial growth in such cases, he says.

“It effectively stops the infection,” he says.

Hyperbaric oxygen chambers may look New Age, but the technology is at least a century old.

Dr. Robert Shesser, chairman of George Washington University Hospital’s Department of Emergency Medicine, says these chambers date in some ways to the “hyperbaric hotels” operated in the 19th century by people who believed extra oxygen would improve their health.

Even today, potential patients approach the Northwest hospital begging to use the chambers for all manner of injury and disease.

“We have them sign a waiver,” Dr. Shesser says, one that says the process will be safe but no guarantees will be made on any progress. It’s important for them to understand that the treatment for their particular condition, be it lyme disease or chronic pain, isn’t supported by the best scientific research, he says.

“It’s a tough area to study,” he adds, because testing can be expensive and it would be a challenge to perform a traditional “double-blind” test in which one party received a placebolike amount of pressurization.

Some high-profile athletes have turned to the chambers as a last-ditch effort to get back in the game. Philadelphia Eagles receiver Terrell Owens treated a severely sprained ankle last season with a personal hyperbaric oxygen chamber in his home.

The treatments can “reduce edema in certain tissue,” Dr. Shesser says, which in cases of acute soft tissue sprain could yield positive results.

Dr. Shesser adds that for all the diseases and conditions people claim the chambers can help, “I don’t think there will be a major change in uses” in the future.

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