During hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT), you breathe pure oxygen inside a highly pressured environment. Often, pressure in the chamber is between 1.5 and 3 times greater than normal air pressure.
This therapy was first seen in the U.S. in the early 20th century. It was later used by undersea medicine specialists to treat deep-sea divers who developed decompression sickness (also called the bends.) It is now used to treat many conditions from severe burns to carbon monoxide poisoning. But like all medical procedures, it has some risks.
During HBOT, you lie on a table in an enclosed chamber and breathe oxygen while the pressure inside the chamber is slowly increased. The therapy may last as little as 3 minutes or as long as 2 hours before the pressure is returned to normal levels. Because the pressure is so high, some people may have discomfort while in the chamber. You may have ear pain or a popping feeling in your ears.
To prevent oxygen poisoning, you may need to take short breaks during the therapy and breathe normal air. This can prevent tissues in the body from taking in too much oxygen.
The oxygen dose given during the treatment should be determined specifically for each person. Your healthcare provider will consider any health problems you have, as well as your overall health and your age. This helps to reduce the risk for side effects and complications.
Possible symptoms or side effects after HBOT can include fatigue and lightheadedness. More severe problems can include:
Fluid buildup or bursting (rupture) of the middle ear
Changes in vision, causing nearsightedness, or myopia
Oxygen poisoning, which can cause lung failure, fluid in the lungs, or seizures
Side effects are generally mild as long as:
The therapy doesn’t last more than 2 hours
The pressure inside the chamber is less than 3 times that of the normal pressure in the atmosphere
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is not safe for everyone. In general, you shouldn't receive HBOT if you:
Have certain types of lung diseases, because of an increased risk for a collapsed lung
Have a collapsed lung
Have a cold or a fever
Have had recent ear surgery or injury
Do not like small enclosed spaces (claustrophobia)
The best way to avoid side effects and complications of HBOT is to be treated by certified and trained medical staff. Not many healthcare providers in the U.S. are board-certified in the field. The healthcare provider directing your therapy should have special training from the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society. Ask to see his or her certificate of completion for the course.
Another way to prevent complications is to use HBOT only as intended. HBOT is used to treat many different health conditions including:
Carbon monoxide poisoning
Injury from crushing
Gas gangrene, a form of gangrene in which gas collects in tissues
Sudden or traumatic inadequate blood flow in the arteries
Select wound healing
Skin grafts and flaps
Infection in a bone called osteomyelitis
Delayed radiation injury
Flesh-eating disease called necrotizing bacterial soft tissue infections
Air or gas bubble trapped in a blood vessel. This is known as an air or gas embolism.
Long-term (chronic) infection called actinomycosis
Diabetic wounds that are not healing properly
Medicare, Medicaid, and many insurance companies generally cover these procedures. But they may not cover it in every case. Check with your insurance plan before you begin treatment.
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