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Hyperbaric medicine is an area of medicine that applies high pressure, high oxygen environments to the treatment of certain conditions. Known as hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT), this type of treatment can be utilized in the management of medical issues such as compression sickness. Physicians who specialize in hyperbaric medicine can pursue certification through professional organizations that maintain high standards of quality and performance for their members.
The classic application of hyperbaric medicine is in compression sickness, also known as “the bends.” When people are exposed to extreme variations in pressure, as seen when people go scuba diving and change depths too suddenly or change altitude on a mountain too quickly when hiking, they can get sick. Hyperbaric chambers are used to repressurize the patient and then slowly change the pressure to allow the patient's body time to adapt.
Hyperbaric medicine is also used in the treatment of gas embolisms in the blood. An embolism is a gas bubble that can become fatal to the patient if it ends up in the wrong place. Time in a hyperbaric chamber will force the bubble to break up and dissolve so that it can be expressed by the body. This treatment is also used in people with carbon monoxide poisoning and in the treatment of people with certain types of infections. HBOT can also be useful in the management of radiation sickness and rejection of skin grafts.
While in a hyperbaric chamber, a patient will be exposed to higher pressure than normal and will also breathe oxygen-enriched air. The patient is monitored for any signs of complications and the length of time spent in the chamber can vary. A doctor will determine how many sessions will be needed in a hyperbaric chamber and how long each session should last.
Certain medical conditions and medications can be contraindications for treatment with hyperbaric medicine. Before a patient enters a hyperbaric chamber, a thorough examination and review of the patient's history is conducted to confirm that the patient is a good candidate for the treatment. It is important for patients to provide accurate information to their care providers during this evaluation.
Hyperbaric medicine training is provided at teaching hospitals in many areas of the world, with some of the best training available near popular dive locations. These areas tend to have excellent hyperbaric medicine programs because this branch of medical practice has an established history in such regions and doctors have access to more patients.