Hyperbaric Oxygen Chambers: how a treatment for deep-sea divers can benefit so many others

It may sound like a time portal from a science fiction novel, but Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT) is actually “an intervention in which an individual breathes near 100% oxygen intermittently while inside a hyperbaric chamber that is pressurized to greater than sea level pressure.”  (Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society).  The ambient pressure inside the chamber is three times higher than the air pressure that people normally breathe.  This increased pressure decreases the trauma of inflammation on tissues, which normally inhibits healing by restricting blood flow.

HBOT works by entering a specialized chamber, which may be only large enough to one person to lie down in, or have the ability to seat multiple people.  Once enclosed, the air pressure inside the chamber is increased and pure oxygen is delivered to the entire chamber or through a mask.  The duration of a treatment session depends on the patient’s condition and can last from 30 minutes to 2 hours.  

The chambers used for HBOT are specialized equipment which was primarily originally used for decompression illness for deep-sea divers, but now is approved by the FDA for use in 12 other conditions such as carbon monoxide poisoning, non-healing wounds, thermal burns and crush injuries.  However, sufferers of other conditions are trying HBOT, and the list of beneficiaries is growing.  Because HBOT increases oxygen to cells by up to 35%, healing rates are increased.  When healing speeds up, medical costs go down.  Here are just some of the ways HBOT, which involves expensive equipment, can actually reduce cost for patients and providers:

  • Faster wound healing means less time spent in hospital and rehab facilities, and more time at home and work for patients.
  • More complete recovery from traumatic injuries means the ability to return to “normal” life and work for patients with less severe handicaps.
  • Faster recovery from injuries means more time in the sport for professional athletes.
  • Relief from or improvement of handicapping symptoms such as tremors, memory loss, and physical limitations

For these reasons, celebrities, professional athletes, veterans and other clients who have not found relief with other therapies are trying HBOT for conditions such as (list from MedicalNewsToday):

These uses are not approved by the FDA (yet) due to lack of scientifically proven benefit for these conditions.  However, the Alliance for Natural Health is an advocate of HBOT and used its platform in 2013 to defend the use of HBOT in the face of a “deceptive” FDA warning to consumers about it.  The warning was meant to discourage use of HBOT for conditions other than FDA-approved conditions.  However, if a patient tries HBOT and sees improvement in their condition, it is hard to quantify the quality of life given by an “off-label” use of a therapy registered with the FDA.  

HBOT units are now available for spa, home, and portable use for ongoing treatment, making it a biohacking tool in spas and luxury homes around the world.  The reason: HBOT is also a method sought (by those who can afford it!) for its anti-aging effects. In a 2020 study from Tel Aviv University, healthy aging adults who used HBOT actually reversed the aging process.  That’s right–REVERSED the aging process.  The state of aging was measured by the length of telomeres, which are the end-caps of our DNA strands (see our post on Deep Breathing for more info on telomeres), and also the presence of dead or dying cells in the blood.  For the study, 35 healthy older people gave blood samples before, during and after a series of 60 hyperbaric treatments over 90 days.  Typically telomeres shorten during aging, but the telomeres of these participants actually grew longer by 20-38%, and there were 11-37% less senescent  (old and malfunctioning) cells.  

Some might say that hyperbaric oxygen is part of the fountain of youth, or even a miracle of relief for those suffering from terrible injuries and diseases.  Doctors and patients alike are warming up to the technology, and the market is poised to grow by 6.24% compound annual growth from 2021 to 2028.  It is certainly not a “fad”, and hopefully more people from all walks of life can benefit from it in the coming years.