A decades-old therapy with a sci-fi look is making a comeback.
Photo by Jared Castaldi
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It’s like something out of Avatar. Long glass tubes sit side-by-side in a dimly lit room, their inhabitants hardly stirring. They’re clothed in simple cotton scrubs and look eerily cadaverous as they lie flat on their backs. Inside their bodies, however, new cells, tissues and vessels spring to life with each inhalation.
These days, folks from all over the region are coming to Hyperbaric Therapy USA in Newtown Square—diabetics, children with autism, and athletes like the Flyers’ Ian Laperrière, who recently spent five days a week in one of these chambers to treat a traumatic brain injury suffered during the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Nationally, hyperbaric oxygen therapy facilities number in the hundreds, and the appointment books are filling up rapidly as more and more patients and doctors are coming around to the FDA-backed version of oxygen therapy. What was once used to treat decompression sickness is now well on its way to becoming one of the fastest-growing adjunct therapy options in the United States.
Oxygen is the main player in HBOT, and the manipulation of its presence in the bloodstream and body tissues is central to effective treatment. Humans at sea level engage in normal daily activity in an air pressure of 1 atmosphere (atm.). At 1 atm., each breath draws a mixture of 21-percent oxygen and 79-percent nitrogen into the body.
In a hyperbaric chamber, the pressure levels can be raised to a maximum of 3 atm., delivering 100 percent oxygen and providing the patient with up to 20 times the body’s normal O2 levels. Increased atmospheric pressure levels cause oxygen molecules to become more abundant and soluble, increasing their binding ability and allowing more usable O2 to cross over all cell membranes within the body.
As the patient sleeps or watches TV inside the chamber, the extra oxygen is transported via plasma and cerebrospinal and lymph fluids to tissues and organs. Increased tissue oxygenation prompts the formation of new blood vessels, plus hard and soft tissue cells. It also helps white blood cells destroy bacteria and remove toxins.
“There’s a feeling of well-being once you finish the session,” says Mitch Williams, a technician at the Newtown Square facility. “Your cellular metabolism is increased exponentially, and the treatments act as a mild detoxification.”
HBOT is no cure-all, but it is a viable adjunct therapy option for those suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning, third-degree burns, gangrene, non-healing wounds, necrotizing fasciitis and more. Lou Granda, president of Hyperbaric Therapy USA, believes its surge in popularity is partly due to recent studies conducted by the Department of Veteran Affairs, examining the effects of oxygen therapy on injured soldiers returning from the Middle East. “Many [had] concussions, brain injuries and wounds,” he says. “It really helped bring to light the validity of this treatment.”