It’s like something out of Avatar. Long glass tubes sit side-by-side in a dimly lit room, their inhabitants hardly stirring. They’re clothed in simple cotton scrubs and look eerily cadaverous as they lie flat on their backs. Inside their bodies, however, new cells, tissues and vessels spring to life with each inhalation.
These days, folks from all over the region are coming to Hyperbaric Therapy USA in Newtown Square—diabetics, children with autism, and athletes like the Flyers’ Ian Laperrière, who recently spent five days a week in one of these chambers to treat a traumatic brain injury suffered during the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Nationally, hyperbaric oxygen therapy facilities number in the hundreds, and the appointment books are filling up rapidly as more and more patients and doctors are coming around to the FDA-backed version of oxygen therapy. What was once used to treat decompression sickness is now well on its way to becoming one of the fastest-growing adjunct therapy options in the United States.
Oxygen is the main player in HBOT, and the manipulation of its presence in the bloodstream and body tissues is central to effective treatment. Humans at sea level engage in normal daily activity in an air pressure of 1 atmosphere (atm.). At 1 atm., each breath draws a mixture of 21-percent oxygen and 79-percent nitrogen into the body.
In a hyperbaric chamber, the pressure levels can be raised to a maximum of 3 atm., delivering 100 percent oxygen and providing the patient with up to 20 times the body’s normal O2 levels. Increased atmospheric pressure levels cause oxygen molecules to become more abundant and soluble, increasing their binding ability and allowing more usable O2 to cross over all cell membranes within the body.
As the patient sleeps or watches TV inside the chamber, the extra oxygen is transported via plasma and cerebrospinal and lymph fluids to tissues and organs. Increased tissue oxygenation prompts the formation of new blood vessels, plus hard and soft tissue cells. It also helps white blood cells destroy bacteria and remove toxins.
“There’s a feeling of well-being once you finish the session,” says Mitch Williams, a technician at the Newtown Square facility. “Your cellular metabolism is increased exponentially, and the treatments act as a mild detoxification.”
HBOT is no cure-all, but it is a viable adjunct therapy option for those suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning, third-degree burns, gangrene, non-healing wounds, necrotizing fasciitis and more. Lou Granda, president of Hyperbaric Therapy USA, believes its surge in popularity is partly due to recent studies conducted by the Department of Veteran Affairs, examining the effects of oxygen therapy on injured soldiers returning from the Middle East. “Many [had] concussions, brain injuries and wounds,” he says. “It really helped bring to light the validity of this treatment.”
The beginnings of modern hyperbaric therapy can be traced to the first half of the 20th century, when doctors treated caisson workers for decompression sickness—aka “the bends”—a potentially fatal condition caused by a steep and rapid drop in air pressure surrounding the body. Symptoms included joint pain, headache and vision disturbances. Since then, HBOT has evolved into a technologically advanced treatment.
Hyperbaric Therapy USA has two chambers. Each treatment—or “dive”—lasts an hour, with additional time for prep and depressurization. The facility sees its fair share of athletes limp and stumble through the door, seeking HBOT treatment for any number of sports-related injuries.
“The biggest thing it helps with is edema,” says Williams. “Oxygen is a vasoconstrictor, and it’s an anti-inflammatory. So any swelling that you might have is decreased drastically after five to 10 treatments.”
The increased oxygen in the bloodstream encourages osteoblast and osteoclast formation in bones, along with fibroblast and collagen production in muscle tissue. All of that plays an integral role in healing and rebuilding tissues.
Those with concussions and other traumatic brain injuries also can benefit from HBOT. Oxygen is pushed beyond the blood-brain barrier, decreasing inflammation and relieving pressure. While such injuries have yet to be added to the list of FDA-approved conditions for treatment, many athletes swear by HBOT.
Meanwhile, new studies are in the works examining HBOT’s impact on autism. “Generally speaking, most autistic children are dealing with inflammation of the brain, so we can decrease that with oxygen therapy,” says Williams. “Many of these children experience constipation and other gastrointestinal issues. The mild detoxifying properties of oxygen impact those problems.”
Last year, physicians at Melbourne, Fla.’s International Child Development Resource Center assessed the efficacy of HBOT in 62 kids with autism. According to the study, they witnessed “significant improvements in overall functioning, receptive language, social interaction, eye contact and sensory/cognitive awareness compared to other children who received slightly pressurized room air.”
Back in Newtown Square, the oxygen chambers keep filling up with patients. Still, each session can run upwards of $100 and may not be covered by insurance. For this and other reasons, always consult with a physician before taking the dive into HBOT.
To learn more, visit hbtusa.com.
1. If you have a history of pneumothorax (commonly known as a collapsed lung).
2. If you’re taking certain cancer medications.
3. If you’re suffering from severe emphysema.
4. If you have end-stage heart failure.
5. If you have a high fever.
6. If you have an active respiratory tract infection.
7. If you have sinus or eustacian tube problems.
8. If you have a seizure disorder.
9. If you’re pregnant, you’ll require special screening and individual consideration.
1. Non-healing wounds.
2. Third-degree burns.
3. Failed skin grafts.
4. Crush injuries.
5. Necrotizing fasciitis.
7. Non-healing osteomyelitis.
8. Radiation necrosis.
9. Brain abscess.
10. Carbon monoxide poisoning.
11. Air embolism.
12. Decompression sickness.
13. Compartment syndrome.