It can be easy to take oxygen for granted. Breathing is so automatic that you barely have to think about it, but it is an essential part of your life. Every cell in your body needs oxygen to survive and thrive. Low oxygen can contribute to a whole host of health issues, while too much can lead to its own problems.
While your body is normally good at regulating its oxygen levels and ensuring that your cells and tissues are well oxygenated, certain health conditions can prevent proper oxygenation. Solid tumors are known to contribute to mild to moderate oxygen deprivation, which may be part of what contributes to cancer cell growth and metastasis.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy or HBOT therapy is an established, commonly used treatment for numerous conditions, but with any treatment, many people worry about the potential for side effects. Learn more about hyperbaric oxygen therapy and any potential side effects in the Immunity Therapy Center guide below.
What Is Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy?
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is fairly simple in theory: delivering more oxygen to the lungs and cells. To accomplish this, the therapy involves patients breathing in pure oxygen while sealed into the pressurized chamber for a set amount of time.
The hyperbaric chamber has an air pressure that is about two to three times higher than normal. This allows for easier and more efficient oxygen absorption by your lungs than breathing in pure oxygen at normal pressure.
The therapy increases the amount of oxygen that your blood can carry. As you repeat the HBOT treatment over time, the temporarily heightened oxygen levels encourage normal oxygen levels sent to injured tissue and cells, even when the therapy has finished.
That increase in oxygen can also help fight bacteria, support the immune system, and stimulate the release of stem cells and growth factors to promote further healing. Additionally, depending on where you will be treated, the hyperbaric chamber treatment cost can range from $100 to $1000.
What Is Hyperbaric Oxygen Treatment Used For?
In its initial incarnation, hyperbaric oxygen treatment was founded in the early 20th century as a therapy for the flu. By the 1940s, hyperbaric oxygen treatment became a notable treatment for decompression sickness, better known as the bends, for scuba divers. Decompression sickness essentially occurs as gases (mainly nitrogen) build up in your body too much, eventually leading to the formation of bubbles in your blood vessels. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy helps to push out those gas bubbles while oxygenating your blood.
Today, hyperbaric oxygen therapy is approved to treat of dozens of health conditions aside from decompression sickness. It is commonly used to treat carbon monoxide poisoning, especially common among firefighters and miners. Other conditions that hyperbaric oxygen therapy can treat include:
- Cyanide poisoning
- Crush injuries
- Sudden inadequate blood flow to arteries
- Bone and skin infections
- Air or other gases trapped in the blood vessels (embolisms)
- Diabetic wounds that are not healing or responding to other treatments
The breadth of conditions approved for treatment with hyperbaric oxygen therapy or HBOT therapy just goes to show how important oxygen is and how our bodies react to it.
Benefits of Hyperbaric Oxygen Treatment
The hyperbaric oxygen therapy benefits include:
Oxygen is essential to how your body heals injuries. Physical wounds naturally lead to blood vessel damage, which causes the release of fluids that lead to swelling in surrounding tissues. That swelling blocks oxygen, resulting in tissue death. Hyperbaric treatment may help to reduce swelling while increasing the amount of oxygen that reaches damaged tissue.
Healing Crush Injuries
In crush injuries and other wounds that result in a sudden severe interruption of blood flow, the blood supply will naturally try to return to the damaged tissue, but that process can result in even more damage, known as reperfusion injury. This is caused by the release of molecules known as oxygen radicals, which can cause permanent damage to tissues and cause blood vessels to become completely blocked.
Along with oxygenating your blood, hyperbaric oxygen therapy can encourage the formation of scavengers that can neutralize oxygen radicals. Without oxygen radicals, your body can resume normal healing.
Supports Immune System
By increasing the oxygen concentration in tissues, hyperbaric oxygen chamber therapy can help your body better resist infections while improving the function of your white blood cells. The treatment also helps to neutralize certain toxins created by bacteria.
New Connective Tissue
Encouraging the formation of new blood vessels allows hyperbaric oxygen chamber therapy to stimulate the production of new skin cells and collagen. Collagen is one of the main proteins in the body that makes up much of the connective tissue, from your skin to your muscles.
Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy Process
The actual process of administering hyperbaric oxygen therapy is easy and requires little from you. There are two types of hyperbaric chambers. Monoplace chambers are built for one person. These comprise long, clear tubes that you slide into.
Multiplace chambers are rooms that look like hospital rooms. These can fit two or more people at once. The only real difference between the two types of chambers is that in multiple chambers, you breathe in pure oxygen through a mask or hood.
During the process, all you have to do is take deep breaths. Otherwise, you can sit, lie down, or relax comfortably. Sessions typically last up to two hours, though most patients will have to return for multiple sessions.
As the room gets pressurized and you breathe in the supplemental oxygen, your blood carries the extra oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body. Injured tissues get infused with blood, allowing for any necessary healing.
To ensure your safety and the effectiveness of the hyperbaric treatment, your healthcare team is on-hand to monitor your vitals during and after the procedure.
Potential Complications and Side Effects of Hyperbaric Oxygen Treatment
The most commonly noted side effect of hyperbaric oxygen therapy is feeling like your ears are plugged up caused by the increased air pressure. This is similar to ascending or descending in a plane or otherwise changing to a higher elevation. Yawning, chewing, and swallowing can help to pop your ears.
Other than that, most patients do not note any side effects. Some minor side effects include fatigue, headaches, and hunger.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is generally considered safe, and complications remain rare. Some potential risks include:
- Temporary eye lens changes result in temporary nearsightedness
- A ruptured eardrum, leaking fluid, or other middle ear injuries as a result of pressure change
- Collapsed lungs
- Excess oxygen in the nervous system leads to seizures
- Reduced blood sugar in people with diabetes who are using insulin
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is not recommended if you have had a recent cold or fever, ear injury or ear surgery, or certain lung diseases. Talk to your doctor to identify any potential risks.
Oxygen is also extremely flammable, so any lighters and electronic devices that generate heat are not permitted in the hyperbaric chamber. You may also need to remove hair products or cosmetics that use petroleum, which may also present a potential fire hazard.
Otherwise, hyperbaric oxygen therapy is extremely safe. Part of the benefit of hyperbaric oxygen therapy is that it is non-invasive, meaning no incisions are necessary. There are no recovery periods, and you can return to your everyday activities immediately. If you are worried about side effects or have an existing health condition that may interfere or react with air pressure changes, talk to your doctor to determine if hyperbaric oxygen therapy is right for you.
- Muz B, de la Puente P, Azab F, Azab AK. The role of hypoxia in cancer progression, angiogenesis, metastasis, and resistance to therapy. Hypoxia (Auckl). 2015;3:83-92. Published 2015 Dec 11. doi:10.2147/HP.S93413
- Moghadam N, Hieda M, Ramey L, Levine BD, Guilliod R. Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy in Sports Musculoskeletal Injuries. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2020;52(6):1420-1426. doi:10.1249/MSS.0000000000002257
- Up To Date. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/hyperbaric-oxygen-therapy
- Bennett MH, Mitchell SJ. Emerging indications for hyperbaric oxygen. Curr Opin Anaesthesiol. 2019;32(6):792-798. doi:10.1097/ACO.0000000000000773
At Immunity Therapy Center, our goal is to provide objective, updated, and research-based information on all health-related topics. This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles. All information has been fact-checked and reviewed by Dr. Carlos Bautista, a Board Certified Medical Doctor at Immunity Therapy Center. All information published on the site must undergo an extensive review process to ensure accuracy. This article contains trusted sources with all references hyperlinked for the reader's visibility.