Hyperbaric Medicine: Oxygen that Heals

Shawn Settles had a deep wound in his foot that was not healing properly. He worried that, with his diabetes, the wound could become worse and lead to infection and even amputation. However, after months of hyperbaric oxygen therapy treatments, the wound healed.

"My body could not heal on its own," said Settles. "This therapy really works, it saved me from suffering further complications."

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is the inhalation of 100 percent oxygen at high pressures. It dramatically raises the oxygen level in the bloodstream and dissolves oxygen into all body fluids, including plasma, central nervous system fluids, lymph and bone. Up to 15 times more oxygen is delivered to damaged tissue than through normal respiration. The added oxygen that is delivered to the soft tissue surrounding a problem wound aids in the healing.

First used as a treatment for decompression sickness and other diving accidents, hyperbaric oxygen therapy has proven highly effective for a number of medical conditions. It is typically used to augment other treatments and enhance the body's natural healing process.

Patients lie in a horizontal total body chamber with transparent double-acrylic walls. When the chamber is sealed, patients inhale 10 times as much oxygen as at sea level and experience approximately twice the atmospheric pressure. They rarely feel any more discomfort than they would from changes in air pressure during airplane travel.

While in the chamber patients can communicate with the attending technicians who are able to closely monitor patients. Patients have a clear outward view and most choose to take a nap, listen to music, or even watch television.

In addition to problem wounds, hyperbaric oxygen therapy is also used for tissue damage following radiation therapy, preparation for tooth extraction in areas previously treated with radiation, crush injuries, exceptional blood loss, intracranial abscess, decompression sickness and carbon monoxide poisoning. The frequency and duration of hyperbaric oxygen therapy varies considerably depending on the condition, although typical treatment is two hours per day, five days a week.

In the case of carbon monoxide poisoning, hyperbaric oxygen can quickly increase the level of oxygen circulating the body. Those exposed to carbon monoxide are often transported to The George Washington University Hospital by ambulance to take advantage of its unique service.

"Hyperbaric medicine is so valuable in the case of carbon monoxide poisoning because it prevents long term damage to the brain," says Robert Rosenthal, medical director of the Hyperbaric Medicine Services at The George Washington University Hospital. "We're currently the only hospital in Washington with hyperbaric chambers. As a result, we, see many fire victims as well as the fire and rescue workers themselves."

GW Hospital's hyperbaric medicine program has provided therapy to thousands of patients since 1985 and continues to grow each year. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is reimbursed by many health plans, including Medicare.