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What is Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy?

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Hyperbaric oxygen therapy has been around, in some form or another, for decades. Today, patients typically lie in a body-sized chamber for an hour or two. But things were much different in 1928, when the largest hyperbaric chamber ever built opened to patients along the shores of Lake Erie in Cleveland.

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The Cunningham Sanitarium was built to look as cutting-edge as it promised to be. Made of steel, the giant sphere weighed 900 tons and was 65 feet in diameter. It was designed to house up to 40 patients at a time and was said to have cost a million dollars to build.

There was only one problem with the giant structure, which was dismantled and sold for scrap in 1942. It used only compressed air, not the compressed oxygen that is used today. It also claimed to alleviate diabetes and cancer. Even today’s advanced chambers can’t do that.

So how does modern hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) work?

HBOT allows your lungs to gather up to three times more oxygen than would be possible breathing at normal air pressure. Your blood then carries this oxygen throughout your body, where it can help fight bacteria and stimulate the release of growth factors and stem cells.

The short version: Injured body tissue heals more quickly when more oxygen is available.

That makes HBOT useful in the treatment of diabetic wounds, burns, skin grafts, radiation tissue damage, soft tissue infection and some brain and sinus infections. It’s also used to treat decompression sickness, severe anemia, carbon monoxide poisoning and bubbles of air in the blood vessels.

The increased air pressure might make you feel like you do in an airplane or at a high elevation. Just like when you’re on a plane, it can help to yawn or swallow. The number of treatments you’ll need depends on what you’re being treated for. Carbon monoxide poisoning, for example, might take only a few sessions, while a non-healing wound could require up to 40 sessions.

Complications are rare, but include temporary nearsightedness, middle ear injuries, lung collapse and seizures. Because of the oxygen-rich environment, fire can also be a hazard, which is why you’ll be asked to make sure you leave behind any lighters or battery-operated devices. You may also have to remove any hair or skin care products that are petroleum based—just to be on the safe side. You will be monitored the entire time you are being treated.

Although it’s been decades since the Cunningham Sanitarium came down, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns that some facilities are still making false claims about the power of HBOT. The FDA makes it very clear that HBOT has only been approved for the treatment of the conditions we outlined earlier--not, as some claim, for the treatment of depression, autism, HIV, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, stroke, sports injuries, migraines, spinal cord injuries, hepatitis or asthma.

HBOT is just one of the tools we use to keep our patients healthy—and feeling good. Give us a call today if you've got a wound that won't heal. Our experienced team at the Fisher-Titus Center for Wound Healing will work with you to do everything we can to help you get your quality of life back.

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