What is a Hyperbaric Chamber?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

In the early 1990s, tabloid photographs of pop singer Michael Jackson lying in an unusual glass-encased medical device were published worldwide. There were rumors of a secret anti-aging treatment or intensive oxygen therapy, but in reality the machine was a hyperbaric chamber. A hyperbaric chamber uses pumps and valves to recreate the greater air pressure experienced by divers under water. Pure oxygen or other saturated gas mixtures may also be pumped into a hyperbaric chamber for medical purposes.

A hyperbaric chamber.
A hyperbaric chamber.

The normal atmospheric condition we all experience on dry land is called normobaric pressure. When divers go under the surface, the pressure of the water and air above them increases with depth. This additional pressure causes several changes in the way a human body processes blood gases like oxygen and nitrogen.

Pure oxygen can be pumped into a hyperbaric chamber for medical treatment.
Pure oxygen can be pumped into a hyperbaric chamber for medical treatment.

If a diver surfaces too quickly, the gases in the blood can convert to bubbles and cause a very dangerous situation called the bends, or decompression sickness. A hyperbaric chamber, sometimes called a decompression chamber, can return a diver to the same depth and pressure experienced during the actual dive. This procedure in the hyperbaric chamber allows the nitrogen in the bubbles to escape naturally, leaving only absorbable oxygen.

Divers must be decompressed if they surface too quickly.
Divers must be decompressed if they surface too quickly.

A hyperbaric chamber's usefulness is not limited to decompression sickness. Certain diseases, such as diabetes or anemia, do not allow blood cells to become supersaturated with oxygen at normal atmospheric pressure. By placing the patient in a hyperbaric chamber and administering pure oxygen, doctors can increase the amount of oxygen cells carried off through the bloodstream. Patients suffering from gas gangrene or flesh-eating bacterial infections can also benefit from the hyperbaric chamber's increased atmospheric pressure.

A hyperbaric chamber may be useful in treating anemia.
A hyperbaric chamber may be useful in treating anemia.

In the United States, hyperbaric chamber treatments are recognized as safe and effective for a handful of medical conditions. European and Scandinavian countries have approved a wider use of the hyperbaric chamber, especially when used in conjunction with oxygen therapies. Treatment in a commercial hyperbaric chamber can be fairly expensive, and some divers with compression sickness can require dozens of treatments. Medical professionals are still debating any other benefits derived from hyperbaric chamber treatments, including reduced effects of aging and improved mental stamina. There are companies worldwide which can provide private hyperbaric chamber models for home use.

Hyperbaric oxygenation therapy may be used to treat severe burns.
Hyperbaric oxygenation therapy may be used to treat severe burns.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


Hyperbaric therapy has a wide range to heal but not only decompression sickness.

This range is mostly occupied with neurological disorders, like autism or ASD, The abnormal expression of gene produces abnormal proteins which impair the neuron cells. This results in cognitive disabilities and social skill impairment.

HBOT or Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy is a way to improve the mental retardation with healing of impaired neuron cells. HBOT with hyperbaric chambers can't heal, but they can improve neural tissues to some extent, providing 100 percent pure oxygen to entire body fluids, tissues and brain cells.

This results in improvement of cognitive disabilities, verbal communications and social skills with all of autistic disorders.


Can this be used to treat stage three lymphedema in the legs?


What kind of machine do I need for a stroke?


I am suffering from avn stage 1. And I am receiving 2ltrs per minute of oxygen through a face mask without increasing atmospheric pressure from a conventional oxygen cylinder and flow meter. Does it help me? Does it serve as hyperbolic chamber?


Do you believe that the atmosphere on the earth at one time was similar to that of a gigantic hyperbaric chamber, say as that of a pre-flood atmospheric earth?


Quadriplegic wants to know if fragile "scar tissue" skin can be strengthened?


@oceanswimmer: There are several different medical conditions that justify HBOT (hyperbaric oxygen therapy) for home use. As a matter of fact, there are 14 different conditions that Medicare approved for HBOT. Many autistic children use hyperbaric chambers at home. Preliminary research indicates that it increases blood flow in their brains where the blood flow was previously limited.


For what reason would someone need a hyperbaric chamber at home?


@boathugger: Yes, there are hyperbaric chambers for the home. Many years ago, hyperbaric chambers were only for hospital use. Now, they have become much more portable and are used at home as well.

The ones used for home treatment are normally referred to as “mild hyperbaric chambers”. They go up to 4.1 PSI which is about the same as a water depth of 11 feet.


Are hyperbaric chambers used at home or only in hospitals?

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