What Is a Recompression Chamber?

M.R. Anglin

A recompression chamber, also called a decompression chamber or a hyperbaric chamber, is a machine that increases the amount of atmospheric pressure exerted on an individual inside of it. Depending on its size and function, these chambers can accommodate one or more people. Though the machine is often used to help treat divers with decompression illness, commonly called the “bends,” it can also be used to treat people who have been in accidents or those with certain injuries. The increased pressure can also cause the body to form new blood vessels to those areas not being adequately supplied. Doctors can also use some recompression chambers to treat poison victims or those with certain bacterial infections.

A recompression chamber.
A recompression chamber.

One of the most well known uses for a recompression chamber is to treat divers with the bends. When a person dives too deeply, the increased water pressure can cause his or her body’s tissues to store excess nitrogen. This is why a diver should take the time to swim to the surface slowly and should remain 15 feet (about 4.5 m) below the surface for at least three minutes. This procedure allows the excess nitrogen to naturally be expelled from the body through the lungs. If the diver does not follow these guidelines and surfaces too quickly, the reduced pressure can allow the nitrogen to form bubbles in his or her bloodstream and tissues, a phenomenon which can cause pain, rashes, paralysis, and death.

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

If a diver has decompression illness, he or she can go into a recompression chamber. This chamber increases the pressure exerted on the diver in order to help the nitrogen reabsorb into tissues. The diver may also be required to breathe 100% oxygen to help expel the nitrogen. After a while, the pressure is gradually decreased until it returns to normal. A single three- to six-hour treatment is usually all a diver needs, but in some cases, recompression may require multiple treatments.

In addition to treating decompression illness, doctors have a variety of other uses for a recompression chamber. In cases where there is an area in the body not adequately supplied with blood, a recompression chamber can facilitate the formation of new blood vessels. The increased pressure also allows the body to absorb more oxygen than it does at normal atmospheric pressure, a phenomenon useful in helping chronic, non-healing wounds heal. In addition, it can help increase the immune system’s functions and can help to reduce the amount of fluid in an injured area. Since a high concentration of oxygen can help remove all other gases from the system, a phenomenon that is accelerated under pressure, the chamber can also assist in the bodily removal of certain poisonous gases, such as carbon monoxide and cyanide.

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