Taking the Hype out of Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy

Supporters of the more questionable uses of hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) claim that the same type of oxygen treatment that helps scuba divers recover from the effects of decompression sickness may provide a cure for a number of diseases, including AIDS, Alzheimer’s and cancer. Although HBOT is a legitimate treatment option for a number of health conditions, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) wants people to know that for others, it’s anything but a cure-all.

What is Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy?

HBOT involves the breathing of pure oxygen while in a sealed, pressurized (up to 3 times the normal atmospheric pressure) treatment chamber. Under these conditions, your lungs can take in as much as 3 times the amount of oxygen than they could while breathing oxygen in a room with normal air pressure. Some chambers accommodate a single patient, while others hold up to a dozen.

What Do the Experts Say?

According to the Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy Committee, HBOT is approved for the following conditions:1

  • Air or gas embolism (air bubbles in the blood vessels)
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning
  • Gas gangrene
  • Certain crush injuries involving a lack of oxygen to the tissues
  • Decompression sickness
  • Wounds that aren’t healing with standard treatment
  • Severe anemia from blood loss (when a blood transfusion isn’t possible)
  • Abscesses in the brain or head
  • Soft tissue infections in which the tissue are becoming necrotic (dying)
  • Osteomyelitis (infection of the bone) that doesn’t respond to standard treatment
  • Skin grafts or skin flaps that aren’t healing properly
  • Heat-related burn injuries
  • Sudden sensorineural hearing loss without a known cause
  • Blockage of the retinal artery (artery that supplies blood to the back of the eye)

FDA Warning: Don’t be Misled

There have been a number of treatment centers in the past few years that have promoted the use of HBOT for the treatment of any number of diseases. The FDA warns the public that HBOT therapy has NOT been proven clinically safe or effective in treating AIDS, Alzheimer’s, asthma, Bell’s palsy, brain injury, cerebral palsy, depression, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injury, stroke, hepatitis or migraine. People who incorrectly believe that HBOT can cure a condition for which it’s not been approved may be endangering their health. They may even experience a worsening of the condition for which they’re seeking treatment.2 Before undergoing HBOT, discuss all your options with your primary care physician.

For more information about HBOT and the conditions for which it has been proven effective, visit the FDA consumer update page.

Author: Deborah Leader RN, BSN, PHN

1 Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society. Definition of Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy. 2011.
2 The Food and Drug Administration. Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy: Don’t be Misled. Updated August 22, 2013.

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