Humans need oxygen to survive. In elementary school, we all learned that the air we breathe contains 21% oxygen.
Our bodies use oxygen for energy production. In the blood vessels, red blood cells carry oxygen and bind it to hemoglobin. It then dissolves in the plasma and flows out to the body tissues through the arteries and capillaries.
While we’ve known of the role of oxygen in our health for hundreds of years, it wasn’t until 1891 that Dr. J.L. Corning built a hyperbaric chamber in New York. Since then, we’ve continued to optimize the chambers for the best combination of air pressure and oxygen for therapeutic purposes.
What Is Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy?
Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT) is when a person breathes in 100% pure oxygen at increased atmospheric pressure. The pressurized chamber helps the body better absorb the oxygen into the lungs and tissues.
The combination of increased oxygen concentration plus extra pressure helps drive more oxygen to where our bodies need it most.
Types of HBOT
There are three types of hyperbaric oxygen chambers. The first two are medical grades that you find in hospitals and medical centers.
- Multiplace chambers – Multiple patients can sit inside. Some are outfitted with hoods or masks to breathe instead of immersing the entire body in the oxygen therapy.
- Monoplace chambers – A single individual can lay or sit for medical treatment.
- Soft-shell chambers – For personal use that you can buy for your own home. You zip yourself into this one. The pressure doesn’t go up as high, but they still offer amazing health benefits.
We measure the pressure as atmosphere absolute (ATA). The soft-shells usually go to 1.3-1.7 ATA, while the hard-shells can go to 5.0 ATA, but humans can only safely descend to 3.0 ATA.
In health care settings, the standard time inside is 90 minutes, plus 10 minutes on both ends to slowly increase and decrease the pressure. It takes a good two hours out of your day.
In a medical setting, they are typically clear acrylic chambers. The at-home devices are opaque, usually insulated with fabric. (I don’t mind the lack of visual stimulation!)
Don’t take anything into the chamber with you. You’ll need to remove all jewelry and electronics from your person (not that you should be carrying your phone in your pocket anyway!) In health care facilities, it’s pretty standard to have TVs set up for patients to watch.
We are learning more about how HBOT helps the body. It:
- Increases oxygen – in all parts of the body
- Regrows blood vessels – by increasing blood flow and enhancing blood density in the body
- Decreases swelling and inflammation – by downregulating multiple inflammatory markers
- Improves lymphatic fluid flow – from the increased pressure
- Stimulates stem cells – which helps the body further regenerate
- Kills infections – by starving harmful anaerobic bacteria of the environment they need to thrive
Overall, it may help optimize your cellular functioning and mitochondria.
Typically, the average course of treatment that doctors prescribe and that some insurances cover is 40 sessions. The FDA approves of the use of hard chambers for the following medical conditions:
- Decompression sickness – counters the excess nitrogen from resurfacing too fast while scuba diving
- Carbon monoxide poisoning
- Wound healing
- Diabetic foot ulcers and diabetic wounds
- Radiation injury
- Skin infections like gangrene
- Skin grafts
- Osteomyelitis – non-healing bone infections
- Sudden deafness or hearing loss
- Gas and air bubbles in blood vessels
- Crush injury
- Vision loss
On the other hand, the FDA has only approved soft chambers for altitude sickness (AKA mountain sickness).
In my podcast interview with Dr. Scott Sherr on hyperbaric medicine, he pointed out that while the FDA only has 14 approved uses for HBOT, other countries have approved it for over 70.
We still have a lot to learn about how it fully works. However, doctors have continued to study hyperbaric therapy for more off-label uses.
- Cancer – typically used in conjunction with chemotherapy and radiation, potentially rendering them more effective
- Arthritis – it may help reduce symptoms when oxidative stress and C-reactive protein levels are too high
- Ischemia – it may reduce the long-term effects of heart attack and strokes
- Reproductive issues – it may improve fertility and reverse erectile dysfunction
- Chronic illness – from chronic fatigue syndrome to Lyme disease, there are many case studies of use for these illnesses
- Traumatic brain injuries
- Depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder
- Parkinson’s Disease
- Autism Spectrum Disorder
Many athletes use it for mild injuries, claiming it speeds up the recovery process. Others use it for anti-aging. Some veterinarians offer HBOT for pets.
Because of the few side effects, many alternative practitioners are willing to try HBOT for complex chronic illnesses and other health conditions that haven’t responded to standard treatments.
Hyperbaric Oxygen Side Effects & Cautions
Nevertheless, HBOT isn’t for everyone. As always, talk to your doctor about hyperbaric oxygen treatments before doing them.
You can cause damage with too much of a good thing like oxygen. There is such a thing as oxygen toxicity. When the amount of oxygen is too high, it can increase reactive oxygen species.
Some conditions require extra caution:
- Recent accidents – if you’ve recently been in an accident, health care providers will need a scan to make sure you don’t have a pneumothorax (a pocket of air inside the lungs)
- Ear issues – the increased ear pressure can injure the middle ear
- Lung disease
- Seizure disorders
In animal studies, too high of pressure induces cataracts and can also cause sinus issues. Some report temporary vision changes, but these clear once the treatments finish. Because 98% of the bacteria in the gut microbiome are anaerobic, one should consider supplementing with Probiotics.
Some HBOT centers suggest taking antioxidants to help counter oxidative stress when using high doses.
Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy at Home
It’s wonderful that we can now harness the power of oxygen in the privacy of our own homes. (And spend less money while getting to keep the device.)
The brands I recommend are:
- Hbot Plus – They offer two soft-shell options, one for sitting and one for lying down. They also have one hard-shell design.
- HyperbaricPro – They have soft-shell designs for lying down, those in wheelchairs, and multiple people at once, in addition to hard-shell models.
I got to experience hyperbaric oxygen with a friend who was battling Lyme Disease. Like when I’ve gone underwater diving, you can feel a little pressure inside your ears and on your skin. It’s almost like you’re in an airplane where your ears pop when you open your mouth. I like to chew gum while in it to help with the pressure.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Tim Jackson. He is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and Orthopedic Rehabilitation, and a Functional Medicine provider. He holds a B.S. Degree in Health Science and Chemistry from Wake Forest University. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Have you tried hyperbaric oxygen therapy yet? Will you try it?