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scuba diving

By: Gina | September 4 2009 | Category: Research & Technology

NASA Hyperbaric ChamberWhen we’re healthy, there’s plenty of oxygen in the air to keep us happy and active (unless, of course, we’re at the top of Mount Everest). But after some injuries, a boost of oxygen in our tissues can be very helpful. That’s where HBOT comes in.

HBOT, or hyperbaric oxygen therapy, is the delivery of oxygen under high pressure. In HBOT, patients are placed in a chamber where the pressure is a few times that found at sea level. They then breathe oxygen-enriched air that’s either in the chamber or supplied through a mask. HBOT therapy is coming back into vogue in large part because we have the technology to build better and much safer chambers.  (They used to have a tendency to explode.)  HBOT chambers are being used in clinics all over the country.

The first use of HBOT was to treat scuba divers with “the bends.” The bends happens when divers surface too quickly. The high pressure underwater allows more gas to dissolve in the blood and tissues than can on land.  As divers return to the surface from below, the gas comes out of solution. When divers surface slowly, the gas is released gradually, but if they come up too quickly, it’s released suddenly, sort of like what happens when we open a can of soda pop. Air bubbles form in tissues, which is painful and sometimes even deadly. So, divers with the bends are usually rushed to hyperbaric chambers, where their blood and tissues can reabsorb the gas temporarily. The pressure in the chamber is then decreased gradually, just like it is when divers surface slowly.

OK, but what does this have to do with healing? Well, many wounds — especially in people with diabetes and skin grafts — don’t have a good blood supply. That means the tissue lacks oxygen, and oxygen is needed for good healing. One way to increase tissue oxygen is to send patients scuba diving, but I’m not sure my grandmother with diabetes would be keen on that. Instead, doctors use HBOT. Patients hang out in an HBOT chamber for a few hours at a time to get extra oxygen into their tissues to help their wounds heal. 

There are numerous other clinical indications for HBOT therapy External Web Site Policy that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. A number of clinical trials looking at HBOT use for traumatic brain injury, diabetic ulcers, and burns are now underway.
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