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New Benefits of Oxygen Therapy

Date: July 1, 2015      Publication: Bottom Line Health      Source: John J.  Freiberger      Print:

14 Conditions Can Now Be Greatly Improved with this Therapy…

The term hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) automatically conjures up images of scuba divers suffering from decompression sickness (the “bends”)—a painful condition that can occur when ascending from deep water too quickly or when people experience rapid or extreme air pressure changes while flying.

What you may not realize: HBOT is now being used to improve—or even eliminate—a growing list of diverse serious medical conditions.

While this therapy may sound a bit mysterious, it’s fairly straightforward. HBOT involves breathing near 100% oxygen within a pressurized chamber to boost oxygen concentration in the bloodstream.

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Recent breakthroughs: Even though HBOT has long been known to increase the oxygen concentration of the blood, scientists are now discovering that it also activates genes and chemicals that spur the growth of new blood vessels and provide other benefits.

There are currently 14 FDA-approved uses for HBOT (see below). But it isn’t a miracle cure. The FDA has expressed well-founded concern that “off-label” uses touted by some medical centers—for such conditions as autism, stroke, cerebral palsy, AIDS and heart disease—might entice consumers who are desperate for a quick fix to a serious health problem.

There’s now a proliferation of uncredentialed HBOT centers in American shopping centers that make outrageous, unproven claims that hyperbaric oxygen can lengthen your life, improve your skin, ramp up your sex life or make you a better athlete. (For details on credentialed HBOT facilities, see below.) Here’s how to determine whether HBOT might be used as part of a treatment plan to help you—or a loved one…

TOP USES FOR HBOT

In addition to treating decompression sickness, HBOT has been FDA-approved for these health issues…

Diabetic wounds. More than three dozen randomized, controlled trials have found that HBOT helps heal diabetic wounds—particularly in the feet, a problem that afflicts about 15% of all people with diabetes and can, if not resolved, sometimes require amputation.

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Not every diabetic wound requires HBOT. In fact, most health insurers require patients who have diabetes to try other treatments, such as standard wound care and good blood sugar control, before covering HBOT. When used for diabetic wounds, it likely helps by stimulating new blood vessel growth, which improves blood flow to the feet.

Radiation injuries from cancer treatment. People who receive radiation treatment for malignancies of the head and neck, prostate or cervix sometimes suffer damage to adjacent tissues that can make them vulnerable to other health problems. For those with head and neck cancer, for instance, radiotherapy can damage the jawbone, leading to infection. Bleeding of the bladder and/or bowel is common among people undergoing radiation for cervical or prostate cancer. HBOT helps to speed healing by increasing oxygen flow to damaged tissue.

Skin grafts or flaps. Many types of patients, including burn victims, require skin grafts (removing a piece of healthy skin and placing it elsewhere on the body). Certain surgeries, such as breast reconstruction, involve the use of skin flaps (partly detaching a piece of skin to cover a nearby area). Both techniques can disrupt the skin’s blood supply and interfere with healing. HBOT increases oxygenated blood flow to these tissues.

Other conditions for which HBOT has received FDA approval…  

Severe anemia.

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Brain abscess (due to infection, for example). 

Bubbles of air (embolism) in blood vessels.

Burns.

Carbon monoxide poisoning.

Crushing injury (in which a limb is damaged, compromising circulation to the extremity).

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Sudden deafness.

Gangrene.

Skin infection that causes tissue death (due to “flesh-eating” bacteria, for example).

Sudden and painless vision loss.

TESTING CONTINUES

Researchers are constantly testing HBOT’s effectiveness in treating other conditions, including Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis (MS). However, outcomes for these and several other conditions have not been shown to improve enough with HBOT to warrant FDA approval.

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UNDERGOING HBOT

What’s it like to receive hyperbaric oxygen therapy? You lie on your back in a single-person chamber in which you breathe the pressurized, ambient air…or don a mask and sit in a larger chamber accommodating two or more people. The air pressure changes—much like during an airplane landing—so your ears may pop a little. Slight, permanent vision changes can result from the altered air pressure, which may require a new prescription for eyeglasses or contact lenses after HBOT is completed.

FINDING HBOT NEAR YOU

If you’re interested in trying HBOT, ask your doctor for a referral to an accredited HBOT center. Or consult the Undersea & Hyperbaric Medical Society (UHMS) to find an accredited facility near you. Accreditation ensures that the facility has been reviewed by UHMS and meets established standards, including equipment maintenance and patient safety. More than 200 facilities nationwide are accredited.

Health insurance usually covers hyperbaric oxygen therapy but not always for all FDA-approved uses. Ask about coverage before being treated. HBOT isn’t cheap: Most conditions require 30 to 60 treatments, and the total cost can rival that of a major surgical procedure—tens of thousands of dollars.

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Source: John J. Freiberger, MD, MPH, director of the fellowship program at the Duke Center for Hyperbaric Medicine and Environmental Physiology and an associate professor of anesthesiology at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. In 2014, he received the Undersea & Hyperbaric Medical Society’s Craig Hoffman/Charles W. Shilling Award, given for outstanding contribution to teaching, education and/or diving safety.