Hyperbaric oxygen therapy

Jane Dean runs the Breath for Life charity which provides natural therapies for sick and brain injured children. She describes a treatment which most people only connect with deep sea diving.

Oxygen is so obviously vital to life that it is surprising so little research has been done into therapeutic use and administration of oxygen. Nor has the role of chronic, sub-clinical oxygen deprivation been fully understood.

Every cell in our body requires oxygen both to survive and to function. We receive the oxygen we need by breathing. Poor breathing technique, lack of exercise and air pollution all contribute to a fall in oxygen levels.Today the amount of oxygen in the air ranges from 19-21% but can fall in heavily industrialised regions and of course in our inner cities.

As long ago as 1917 John Scott published an article in the British Medical Journal (1) identifying the need to give more oxygen to ensure that sufficient oxygen actually reaches the tissues, not just for metabolism but also for repair of injury or disease. He devised the first apparatus to administer 100% oxygen and pointed out that the dosage depends on barometric pressure ie the pressure of the atmosphere.

Atmospheric pressure decreases as one climbs above sea level because the air weighs less the higher you climb. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) is a method of administering pure oxygen at greater than atmospheric pressure. A hyperbaric oxygen chamber is the vessel we use to administer oxygen under pressure. Anyone who has flown in an airplane has in fact been in a pressure chamber.

Traditionally HBOT has been associated with the diving industry as the treatment of choice for decompression sickness. However, in more recent years there has been some notable research into HBOT with regard to certain conditions. For example, head injury (2), myocardial infarction(3), multiple sclerosis(4), cerebral palsy (5), leg ulcers (6) and colitis/Crohn’s disease (7).

It is my belief that HBOT will be seen as a powerful tool against many of today’s environmental problems including antibiotic resistant infections and chronic fatigue syndrome, and for improving immune function, particularly after many years of food intolerance.

So how does HBO work?

1. Hyperoxygenation
Oxygen is normally carried through the body by the red blood cells. The elevated pressure within the chamber causes not only an increased take up of oxygen in the red cell (the haemoglobin factor) but the plasma, the watery part of the blood, also becomes oxygenated. This increases the delivery of oxygen to the cells even in cases of tissue injury, for example, in the brain or gut, where oxygenation has been compromised. The oxygenated plasma can reach into areas of tissue damage where the sticky red blood cell finds negotiation difficult.
Elevated levels of oxygen at high pressure can also purge toxins including carbon monoxide from the body.

2. Neovascularisation
Increasing the oxygen intake to the blood stream promotes the
formation of new capillaries, tiny thin-walled blood vessels, that improve blood flow. Swelling occurs when tissues are damaged, HBOT increases blood flow and brings nutrients to the injured area and reduces swelling.

3. Vasoconstriction, narrowing of blood vessels
High pressure oxygen causes constriction of the blood vessels without reducing oxygenation or hypoxia. Vasoconstriction is known to reduce oedema (swelling) in injured tissues, treat ischemia (decrease of oxygenated blood in the tissues) and burns.

4. Antibacterial activity
HBOT boosts the immune response. It enhances the killing ability of white blood cells, which can then destroy germs, toxins and free radicals, (incomplete molecules with an uneven electrical charge).
Bacteria and parasites in the gut can be classified into two types: aerobic, which are the beneficial varieties like lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidobacterium and which multiply in an oxygen rich environment, and anaerobic, which are the harmful types such as E Coli, staphylococcus and helicobacter pylori which soon diminish in an oxygen-rich environment. As we are confronted with an increasing number of antibiotic resistant infections, HBOT provides a natural and safe alternative.

Oxygen and the inflammatory cell
An article by Cramer that appeared in the magazine Nature in 2003 (8) described how cells, wherever they are situated in the body, suffer a similar reaction to low oxygen levels (hypoxia).
Hypoxia produces inflammation. Cramer discovered hypoxia caused the immune system to release a protein that regulates the expression of at least 30 genes when oxygen levels are low.
Both inflammation and the production of leukocytes (killer cells) are a response to low oxygen levels.

Oxygen therapy at a Breath for Life
Oxygen is life giving and life sustaining. As the complexities of human function continue to unravel, of one thing we are sure, without oxygen there is no life and no healing can take place without it. We are also beginning to learn that there is no more powerful intervention than oxygen. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy can be used either as an emergency treatment for decompression sickness, carbon
monoxide poisoning or in any situation where there has been lack of oxygen to the brain.

At A Breath for Life we have a purpose-built, multiple, type 3, chamber. Initially our chamber was used for children with cerebral palsy or similar brain injury. We are registered with the Healthcare Commission to provide this service. In recent years we have allowed adults who are suffering from multiple sclerosis or neurological problems to use the chamber.

Our medical director is Professor Philip James of the Wolfson Hyperbaric Medical Unit at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee. Professor James is the guru of hyperbaric medicine with an impressive international reputation.

The children are accompanied by an adult. They receive oxygen via a hood which avoids the use of a face mask. The adults use a face mask.
The treatment takes one and a half hours. Fifteen minutes to compress, one hour on oxygen and 15 minutes to decompress. The chamber is compressed from 1.5 to 2 atmospheres absolute (about 20 feet in diving terms). A course of several sessions is needed and in the case of brain injury long-term therapy is recommended.

Compression is not dangerous, however, there may be ear pain similar to that experienced when flying. We advise holding the nose and swallowing or sucking on a boiled sweet for relief. Some clients complain of sinus pain also. Adults who are long- term users can sometimes experience loose dental fillings. An absolute ‘no’ to treatment is pneumothorax, air in the chest cavity.

We are slowly developing our service. We found that children who were receiving HBOT rarely suffered from infections and quickly recovered from any other un-related injury. With medical consent we are hoping to develop a protocol for those people with parasitic infections of the gut. Lyme disease caused by the spirochete, Borrelia burgdorferi, is notoriously difficult to eradicate and often involves antibiotic treatment over several months. Lyme disease has also been linked to chronic fatigue syndrome and theoretically with some food intolerances. A study by Austin in 1993 (9) using HBOT against Borrelia was encouraging.

I am also interested in the use of HBOT wherever there has been inflammation and the gut would be a primary site. Could it be by simply using HBOT we could eradicate parasitic infections of the gut, clear free radical damage, clear the inflammation and allow the gut to become more tolerant of previously allergenic food groups. Utopia!

HBOT is a safe and non-invasive. It works well with other treatments and is inexpensive when compared with other hi-tech orthodox treatments.

1. Haldane JS. The therapeutic administration of oxygen. BMJ 1917, 181-3
2. Rockswold GL, Ford SE, Anderson DC et al. Results of a prospective randomized trial for treatment of severely brain-injured patients with hyperbaric oxygen. Journal Neurosurg 1992, 76;929-34
3. Shandling AH, Ellestad MH, Hart GB et al. Hyperbaric oxygen and thrombolysis in myocardial infarction. Am Heart Journ 1997 134: 544-50
4. Fischer BH, Marks M, Reich T. Hyperbaric oxygen treatment of multiple sclerosis. N Engl Journ Med 1983, 308:181-6
5. Collet JP, Vanasse M, Marois p et al. Hyperbaric Oxygen for children with cerebral palsy. Lancet 2001, 357:582-6
6. Hammarlund C, Sundberg T. Hyperbaric Oxygen reduced size of chronic leg ulcers. Plast Reconsts Surg 1994, 93:829-33
7. Buchman AL, Fife C, Torres C, Smith L, Aristizbal J Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy for severe ulcerative colitis. J Clin Gastroent 2001 33: 337-9
8. Cramer T et al. Oxygen and the Inflamatory Cell. Nature, 2003, 422: 675-6
9. Austin F Maintenance of infective Borrelia burgdorferi. Cardio Jour Microbiol 1993 39:1103-1

More information from A Breath for Life Hyperbaric Treatment Centre LA3 3JJ tel 01524 855422 www.abreathforlife.org

HBOT costs £10 per session for children and £25 for adults
For more information on other centres and approaches call 01382 420120 or check


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