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Hyperbaric medicine

Each of us needs oxygen to stay alive. Oxygen is inhaled by the lungs, carried throughout the body by blood and allows our organs and tissues to carry out their vital functions. Oxygen also plays a crucial role in healing.

What is hyperbaric oxygen therapy?

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is a medical treatment that promotes healing in wounds that have failed to heal after other wound care measures. Often, wounds fail to heal because of low oxygen levels in the wounded tissues. Small blood vessel damage from diabetes, peripheral arterial disease or radiation treatment can lead to those lower oxygen levels. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy works to increase oxygen levels in wounded tissues.

Only 21 percent of the air we breathe is oxygen. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy, also called hyperbaric medicine, exposes the body to 100 percent pure oxygen using a hyperbaric chamber. This high level of oxygen combined with high air pressure in the chamber helps your lungs to get a greater amount of oxygen into your blood which circulates through your body and stimulates healing by:

  • Increasing oxygen delivery to the injured tissue.
  • Promoting blood vessel formation.
  • Improving infection control.
  • Preserving damaged tissues.

All of the healing powers of this increased oxygen comes from having the oxygen circulate through the body, not from having the oxygen contact open wounds. Therefore, wound dressings are normally left in place during hyperbaric oxygen treatments.

Often, transcutaneous oxygen monitoring is used to evaluate oxygen levels in the blood of patients with non-healing wounds. This test can help determine whether a patient could benefit from hyperbaric oxygen therapy or other supplemental oxygen, or can evaluate the effectiveness of hyperbaric oxygen therapy. T-COM testing involves lying down for approximately one hour while oxygen levels are measured. Patients are asked to avoid smoking and caffeine prior to testing.

What can hyperbaric oxygen therapy treat?

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is used to treat a limited but diverse group of illnesses and conditions, including:

  • Enhanced healing of problem wounds.
  • Diabetic foot ulcers.
  • Diabetic leg ulcers.
  • Chronic refractory osteomyelitis.
  • Delayed radiation soft tissue injury.
  • Osteoradionecrosis.
  • Preparation for skin grafts/flaps.
  • Compromised skin grafts/flaps.

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy promotes the generation of healthy tissues and skin, stimulates new blood vessel formation and enhances the function of the immune system. It is often used in combination with antibiotics and even surgery. Your wound care expert or any other specialist involved in your care will work with our hyperbaric experts to determine how hyperbaric oxygen therapy can be incorporated into your treatment plan.

What happens during hyperbaric oxygen therapy? What does hyperbaric oxygen therapy feel like?

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy takes place in a pressurized chamber filled with 100 percent oxygen. This results in 10 times more oxygen than normal being dissolved into your blood. Typically, this feels no different than lying in your own bed. You might notice "popping" in your ears similar to what you feel when flying in a plane or driving over a mountain; this can be relieved with simple techniques you will be taught. 

You can nap, watch a movie or listen to music while the chamber is filled with pure oxygen and pressurized to your provider's specifications. Your only job is to breathe! 

You will be provided with cotton garments to wear during therapy to reduce the occurrence of static electricity. For the same reason, other items not allowed in the chamber include:

  • Air or chemically-activated heating pads or wraps.
  • Cigarettes, matches and lighters.
  • Jewelry and other metal objects.
  • Hairspray and makeup.
  • Perfumes, deodorants and shaving lotions.
  • Oils and grease including those in hair and skin products.
  • Battery-powered devices including cell phones and hearing aids.
  • Hair extensions or wigs.
  • Food or chewing gum.
  • Dentures and partial plates (inform staff of any implanted devices).

If you have a sinus allergy, respiratory infection, cold, influenza, cough, sore throat, nausea, vomiting, headache or diarrhea, your provider might choose to delay your treatments until that condition resolves.

The length and number of treatments you have will be decided by your provider. Some patients will see benefits after only a few treatments. More typically, however, 30 to 40 treatments are necessary to receive maximum benefit. Most patients will receive treatments of a couple hours at a time five days a week until treatment ends.

The nurse or technician supervising your treatment will be either right next to the chamber or within site during your whole treatment. There is also a communication system so you can talk to the nurse or technician at any time.

How can I prepare for hyperbaric oxygen therapy?

You will feel most comfortable during treatment if you eat a balanced meal and empty your bladder prior to hyperbaric oxygen therapy.

Nicotine and caffeine both constrict blood vessels and limit the delivery of oxygen to tissues. It is important to avoid nicotine for the entire course of your treatment, and to avoid caffeine and carbonated beverages for at least two hours before each treatment.

Certain medications can affect how oxygen travels through the body. It is important that you let your provider know about any medications you are taking, including over-the-counter medications, so that therapy can be planned accordingly.

Does hyperbaric oxygen therapy have any side effects?

Typically, hyperbaric oxygen therapy has few, if any, side effects. Some patients experience a "crackling" in their ears between treatments. This can be relieved using the same techniques used for ear "popping" in the chamber. Some patients feel light-headed briefly after treatments, but this generally goes away quickly.

Changes in eyesight are common. Any changes to the eyes affected by treatment will resolve within four months.

Other risks are very rare, but will be discussed with you before treatment begins.

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