What is Hyperbaric Therapy?

The Power of Oxygen Under Pressure

Under normal pressure, oxygen is transported through the circulatory system by the red blood cells. The body is limited to the success and health of the circulatory system.

In areas where circulation is poor, oxygenation is lacking. This can lead to disease, slower healing, and tissue death.

When the body is placed in a pressurized environment, under simple laws of physics, oxygen is able to dissolve into the plasma and is no longer dependent on the circulatory system for transportation.

The Science Related to Hyperbaric Therapy:

Hyperbaric therapy (HBT) is the medical use of creating a pressurized environment at a level higher than 1 atmosphere absolute (ATA). Increased pressure allows oxygen to dissolve and saturate the blood plasma (independent of hemoglobin/red blood cells), which yields a broad variety of positive physiological, biochemical and cellular effects. This noninvasive therapy is a trusted way to increase oxygen levels to all organs of the body. The typical treatment lasts 60-120 minutes, during which the patient relaxes and breathes normally. HBT has been demonstrated in numerous clinical studies to enhance the body’s innate ability to repair and regenerate. It is used as an adjunct therapy to complement and enhance the healing processes in both chronic and acute conditions.

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Henry’s Law

At a constant temperature, the amount of a given gas that dissolves in a given type and volume of liquid is directly proportional to the partial pressure of that gas in equilibrium with that liquid.
For a gas (in this case, oxygen) to effectively dissolve into any liquid (blood plasma), pressure is required.

Hyperbaric pressure changes the environment to assist in higher levels of oxygen to reach the tissues of the body helping those tissues to heal, build, and thrive.

BOYLE’S LAW OF PHYSICS

When temperature is constant, the volume of a gas is inversely proportional to the pressure and the density of a gas is directly proportional to the pressure

Increased environmental pressures decrease the size of the oxygen molecules. This enables more oxygen to exist in the tissues of the body. Oxygen molecules in the alveoli of the lungs become more concentrated which increases the amount of oxygen molecules transferred to the blood by diffusion. In this state, oxygen can travel beyond the walls of the veins and arteries.

A Deeper Look into Hyperbaric Therapy

Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy is a safe, non-invasive modality that increases oxygen levels throughout the entire body. While in a hyperbaric chamber, a patient breathes pressurized oxygen. There are a wide variety of hyperbaric chambers, which can deliver different levels of pressure and different levels of oxygen. Soft sided chambers reach 1.3. Atmospheres Absolute (ATA), or close to the equivalent of 11 feet under water. These can operate with ambient air, which contains 19-21% oxygen or they can operate with oxygen concentrators to increase the level. High pressure chambers can reach much higher pressures, but typically treat up to 3 ATA and can utilize ambient air all the way up to 100% oxygen levels. Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy works based on 2 main laws of physics: Henry’s Law and Boyle’s Law.

Henry’s Law states that at a constant temperature, the amount of a given gas that dissolves in a given type and volume of liquid is directly proportional to the partial pressure of that gas in equilibrium with that liquid. In essence, pressure is required for a gas (oxygen) to effectively dissolve into a liquid (blood plasma). When inside a hyperbaric environment, greater levels of oxygen are able to reach deep into the tissues of the body.

Boyle’s Law states that when temperature is constant, the volume of a gas is inversely proportional to the pressure and the density of a gas is directly proportional to the pressure. As pressure increases, the size of oxygen molecules decrease, creating a denser oxygen environment. Oxygen molecules in the alveolus (lung membrane) become more concentrated and make it possible for more oxygen molecules to be transferred to the blood by diffusion, which saturates the blood plasma.

We all know that oxygen is the foundation for life; every single cell in our body requires oxygen in order to keep every bodily process functioning properly. Oxygen is carried throughout the body via the circulatory system, specifically on the red blood cells. Prolonged lack of oxygen equals death. Many people don’t realize that oxygen can be depleted or blocked in small, localized areas of the body. If trauma occurs to tissue, whether from injury, infection, or stress, the inflammatory process will work to respond to the wounded area by encasing it with fluid and calling up the immune system to work on recovering the wound. While the inflammatory process is a necessary action in the healing process, it can also inadvertently cause more harm to surrounding tissues. The swelling caused by fluid buildup puts pressure on blood vessels that run through the injured area. This pressure can lead to narrowing or complete blockage of blood flow. If adequate blood flow can’t reach the injury, there will not be enough oxygen delivery to help the cells rebuild and recover the damaged tissue.

Inflammation is well known to be the main trigger of symptoms for most diseases, and without enough oxygen, inflammation can’t be easily controlled. Oxygen is one of the main natural anti-inflammatories our body utilizes to heal injuries. Dr. Dan Rossignol, MD, has found that 1 hour of oxygen delivery via hyperbaric chamber has the same anti-inflammatory power as 12,000mg of Motrin. Because the higher pressure of a hyperbaric chamber dissolves oxygen into the plasma, the circulatory system is able to deliver several times more oxygen to stressed or damaged tissue, from the brain all the way down to the toes. Thanks to the anti-inflammatory properties of increased oxygen and pressure, there are almost 200 conditions that hyperbarics have been used for with success from sports recovery all the way to severe traumatic brain injury.

Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy has been shown to:

  • Positively affect 8,101 genes (particularly genes involved in reducing inflammation and stimulating tissue repair/growth)

  • Reduce inflammation due to injury, disease or infection
  • Reduce pain
  • Reduce recovery times from injuries and surgical procedures
  • Create new blood vessels (Angiogenesis)
  • Kill anaerobic (oxygen hating) bacteria, viruses, cancerous cells
  • Stimulate stem cell growth
  • Correct genetic markers (Epigenetics)
  • Detoxify organs and tissues
  • Support the immune system

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Hyperbarics Throughout History

Historic drawing of early hyperbaric chamber

Hyperbaric medicine is the use of high concentrations of oxygen at pressures higher than atmospheric for the treatment and management of disease. The first documented use of hyperbaric therapy occurred in 1662 when a British physician created an airtight chamber, called a ‘domicilium’, in which the atmosphere could be compressed and decompressed using oxygen bellows and valves.

Although it is unlikely that the physician’s patients benefited from time spent in the domicilium, his work is remarkable, particularly because it occurred before the discovery of oxygen. In the 1800’s, hyperbaric chambers became popular throughout Europe.

The foundations of hyperbaric medicine were laid in 1872 by Paul Bert, a French engineer, physician and scientist, who wrote about the physiological effects of air under increased and decreased atmospheric pressures in La Pression Barometrique.

Dr. J. Leonard Corning built the first hyperbaric chamber in the United States in New York in 1891. Dr. Orval Cunningham, chairman of the Department of Anesthesiology at Kansas University Medical School, became interested in hyperbaric chambers during the influenza pandemic at the end of World War I. Over the next several years, he utilized hyperbaric chambers to treat a variety of diseases, including diabetes, arthritis and syphilis. In 1928, Cunningham opened the largest hyperbaric chamber in the world in Cleveland, Ohio.
The medical community remained skeptical of Cunningham’s work with hyperbaric air because he failed to substantiate his claims with clinical data. In the 1930s, Álvaro Osório de Almeida, a Brazilian physician, recognized the potential benefits of hyperbaric oxygen therapy and published several papers on his work on the effects of high doses of oxygen on tumors in animals and people.

The United States Navy also conducted extensive research on the use of hyperbaric oxygen to treat decompression sickness. A significant report on this research was published by Behnke and Shaw in 1937. Since this time, physicians and scientists have continued to explore the use of hyperbaric oxygen therapy in the treatment and management of disease.
In the 1940’s, the military developed chambers to treat deep-sea divers who suffered from decompression sickness. In the 1950’s, physicians utilized hyperbarics during heart and lung surgeries, which led to its use for carbon monoxide poisoning in the 1960’s. Presently, over 11,000 clinical trials and case studies have been completed for a myriad of other health-related applications with the majority of results showing great success.
Clarke, D. (2008). History of Hyperbaric Therapy. In T. S. Neuman & S. R. Thom (Eds.), Physiology and Medicine of Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (1st ed., pp. 3-23). Philadelphia: Saunders. Retrieved from ClinicalKey.Jain, K. K. (2009). Textbook of hyperbaric medicine. Cambridge, Mass.: Hogrefe and Huber.Moon, R. E., & Camporesi, E. M. (1999). Hyperbaric oxygen therapy: from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century. Respir Care Clin N Am, 5(1), 1-5.