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The Healing Power of Oxygen: An Inside Look at Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy

If you've ever accidentally burned yourself on the stove, you know how painful it can be. What you might not be aware of is how quickly your body gets to work to heal that skin.
 
And while the healing process is certainly an impressive one, it can sometimes take a little longer time than you’d like — especially when it comes to more serious wounds.
 
Wouldn't it be nice if you could speed up that process?
 
Thanks to hyperbaric oxygen therapy, you can. Using oxygen — which plays an important role in wound healing — you can actually support the healing process, making it quicker and more efficient.
 
Sounds like magic, right? Well, it's not — it's science.
 
Conditions_that_hyperbaric_oxygen_can_help_heal
 
According to Dr. David D'Angelo, DO, Medical Director of Penn Wound Care and Hyperbaric Medicine at Chester County Hospital, there are two parts of your cells involved in healing that require oxygen: the mitochondria (the powerhouse of cells) and the stem cells (the repair system for the body).
 
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy uses a special pressure chamber that increases the amount of oxygen in your blood so your wounds can heal faster and more efficiently. It can improve your oxygen supply, reduce swelling, and stop infection — all while you're relaxing in the chamber.
 
Here's what you need to know about hyperbaric therapy and how it plays a role in wound healing.

How Hyperbaric Therapy Works — and Who It Can Benefit

 

David D'Angelo, DO,
Medical Director of Penn Wound Care and Hyperbaric Medicine at Chester County Hospital
Hyperbaric therapy requires zero needles and zero incisions — it only requires that you enter the hyperbaric chamber. And while this chamber might look a little like a spaceship, it's just like any other medical equipment that benefits your body and how it heals.
 
Inside the hyperbaric chamber, the air pressure is roughly two and a half times higher than normal air pressure. This allows your body to carry more oxygen to your organs and tissues, supporting the healing process.
 
"Oxygen, in and of itself, is a drug," explains Dr. D'Angelo. "When it meets certain parts of the body, it can have a healing effect."
 
Normally, oxygen gets delivered to wounds through your blood system. During hyperbaric therapy, your entire body receives the treatment. As a result, oxygen can actually go beyond the reach of your arteries — extending the healing benefits of oxygen.
 
When you add in the air pressure of the chamber, it concentrates the delivery of oxygen to specific areas, such as a wound that needs healing. This high dose of oxygen stimulates the power of the mitochondria in the cells, which provide the cells with energy. Even more, it attracts stem cells — which are healing cells — to the impaired area.
 
As Dr. D'Angelo says, "This is where the healing powers really exert their effect."
 
Hyperbaric therapy can benefit a number of conditions, including emergencies such as carbon monoxide poisoning or a crush injury. However, at Penn Wound Care and Hyperbaric Medicine at Chester County Hospital, treatments are usually daily healing operations, such as a foot ulcer from diabetes or chronic radiation injury from radiation therapy for cancer.
 
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy can also benefit other conditions, such as:
  • Bone infections
  • Burns
  • Skin grafts
  • Frostbite
  • Severe anemia
  • Wounds that haven’t healed with other treatments
 
"If used alongside antibiotics, hyperbaric oxygen therapy can also enhance the power of those antibiotics to reach its intended target. Primarily, the body is doing its own healing. Hyperbaric therapy is just enhancing those processes," Dr. D'Angelo says.

Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy: The Experience

Hyperbaric Chamber
Being inside a hyperbaric oxygen chamber is a lot like laying in your own bed — only you're inside a glass cylinder and you're not at home.
 
You can see out in all directions, but you're still in a closed environment, which might feel a little strange at first. "It's a bit unusual — but it's very adaptable," Dr. D'Angelo says.
 
While in the chamber, you can still enjoy some relaxation by watching one of the televisions that’s placed outside the chamber. You can also speak with the hyperbaric oxygen chamber technician who is about a foot away from you and always within your view.
 
You may feel some pressure in your ears — much like flying in a plane. To help ease this feeling, you can try clearing your ears by swallowing, yawning, or opening and closing your mouth.
 
Hyperbaric therapy usually requires more than one treatment. "It's not a one and done process. There is a significant time commitment," Dr. D'Angelo says. The standard 2-hour treatment is usually done 5 days per week for a 2-month period.
 
The upside of the time commitment is that you'll have the opportunity to get used to the process and find ways to make it more enjoyable. And while treatments can temporarily put a wrench in your daily routine, the benefit can certainly be worth it in the long run when it comes to wound healing.

Potential Side Effects and How to Help Prevent Them

"Hyperbaric therapy is usually well-tolerated," Dr. D'Angelo says. "Most people can complete the 2-hour time period without any unintended consequences."
 
However, like any medical treatment, there are side effects. "We tell patients that because it is air under pressure, the air has to have a way to escape. If there's any air in your body that's being trapped and doesn't have a way outside of the body, that can cause concern," he says.
 
Trapped air — usually in the lungs, sinuses, or ears — is called barotrauma. This can cause people with sinusitis to feel sinus pressure, and it can also cause people who have ears that don't properly drain to feel pressure in their ears.
 
Other potential side effects include acceleration of cataract growth (a clouding of the lens of the eyes) or lowered blood sugar while in the chamber.
 
There are also extremely rare side effects, such as pneumothorax (collapsed lung) or a seizure caused by too much oxygen. Dr. D'Angelo emphasizes that these are not only rare but also treatable.
 
Beyond physical side effects, being in a hyperbaric chamber can cause some people anxiety, especially those who are claustrophobic.
 
"Because you're in a chamber that's sealed and under pressure, you can't just open the door. The pressure has to be eased up before you can exit the tank," he says. "For some people, that can be a little scary."
 
Managing the Side Effects of Hyperbaric Therapy
 
Fortunately, there are ways to ease the potential side effects of hyperbaric therapy. One of the simplest ways is for the chamber operator to change the oxygen and pressure levels more slowly or quickly to lessen the symptoms.
 
If you have serious ear trauma, you may also benefit from having tubes put in your ears by an ear, nose, and throat physician.
 
As for the anxiety that can come with entering the chamber, you may be able to take medication to help ease your nerves. Keep in mind, however, that you'll need a designated driver to get you home after your treatment if you take medication.

Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy and Your Well-being

Penn Wound Care and Hyperbaric Medicine Team
Your body usually does an impressive job of healing itself, but sometimes it needs a little help. Because healing plays a role in so many parts of your body, the benefits of hyperbaric therapy are numerous.
 
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy may be able to provide you with the right combination of oxygen and pressure to speed up your own body's healing process — and it may just be the breath of "fresh" air that your body needs.
 
Do you have questions about how hyperbaric oxygen therapy can benefit your wound healing? Call 610-738-2590 to make an appointment at Penn Wound Care and Hyperbaric Medicine Center. Virtual telemedicine appointments are available.
 
Have a few more questions? Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about hyperbaric oxygen therapy.

 

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Chester County Hospital's Health e-Living Blog offers a regular serving of useful health and lifestyle information for the residents of Chester County, PA and the surrounding region.

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