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Hyperbaric oxygen treatment (HBOT) involves breathing 100 percent oxygen while occupying a sealed chamber that maintains atmospheric pressure 1 ½ to 3 times greater than normal. It is a treatment that has been used in one form or another since the 1600s. There are two types of hyperbaric chambers: monoplace, in which a single patient is treated, and multi-place with room for several patients and a nurse or other person inside to monitor patients and equipment.
In a monoplace, which is a clear plastic tube approximately seven feet (about 2 meters) in length, the patient relaxes on a padded table while the tube is gradually pressurized with pure oxygen. Sessions typically last from 30 minutes to two hours. Treatment may cause ear pops or mild discomfort that can be remedied by decreasing the pressure. Patients may feel tired and lightheaded following a hyperbaric oxygen treatment, but symptoms are usually mild and short-lived.
Multi-place hyperbaric oxygen treatment chambers can treat a dozen or more patients at the same time. Ambulatory patients sit in recliners; others are wheeled in on beds or gurneys with their intravenous lines or ventilators in place. All of a patient’s equipment goes into the chamber with him or her. Patients in multi-place chambers receive 100 percent oxygen through masks or close-fitting hoods.
Decompression sickness, or the bends, affects divers who surface too quickly. Hyperbaric oxygen treatment has been standard therapy for this condition for years. It is also used as a treatment and preventative measure for bone damage caused by radiation therapy. Crushing injuries and wounds that do not heal properly benefit from HBOT. As effective as it is for certain conditions, there is no evidence to support claims that HBOT will stop the growth of cancer cells or that it helps patients with allergies, arthritis, chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple sclerosis, autism or stroke.
Hyperbaric oxygen treatment is relatively safe for approved medical applications. Complications can be avoided or reduced by keeping pressure in the chamber below three times normal atmospheric pressure and limiting sessions to a maximum of two hours. Possible serious complications include damage to the middle ear or sinuses, lung damage and myopia — short-sightedness — that can last for weeks or even months.
Certain people should avoid hyperbaric oxygen treatment. It can worsen the symptoms of patients with congestive heart failure, and it can put patients with certain types of lung disease at risk for lung collapse. Pregnant women should not be treated with HBOT unless the situation is grave and there are no other options. All risks and benefits should be discussed with doctors so that an informed decision regarding treatment can be made.