Hyperbaric chambers can be a bit of a mystery if you are not familiar with the science of how they work. They, unlike surgery, do not involve any intrusive measures or special medicine. A treatment session only requires you to sit or lie down in the chamber when it is set to the right atmospheric conditions.
So, how in the world, does such a simple process promote the healing of something as complex as decompression sickness or a diabetic ulcer?
Come along as we discuss all that you need to know about this unique treatment approach and how hyperbaric chambers indeed speed up healing.
The Science Behind Hyperbaric Chambers
Hyperbaric chamber treatments are also known as hyperbaric oxygen therapy sessions. This is because hyperbaric chambers use two main components to promote healing:
- Pure oxygen
- Atmospheric pressure levels 2 or 3 times higher than what we normally experience in our day-to-day living
When you are placed in a hyperbaric chamber, the entrance is tightly sealed and tubes inside the chamber begin to steadily pump in pure oxygen. This process is gradual to allow your body to adjust to these new conditions.
Two key things then come into playy at this point. First, your body begins to inhale more than you normally would due to the higher pressure conditions. This means more of the pure oxygen will enter your bloodstream and reach your body cells.
Remember that pure oxygen is not like the normal air we breathe. It usually comprises about 90% or more oxygen while normal air only offers 21% oxygen. This means that your cells receive a much higher concentration of oxygen during your HBOT session.
Why does this matter?
Human cells require oxygen to remain healthy, regenerate, produce energy, and even perform immune-related functions like fighting off diseases and flushing out toxins. When you suffer injuries or certain medical conditions, these cells may not be able to get or absorb as much oxygen as they need. This diminishes their ability to fight off disease, regenerate, and perform their other functions optimally.
Therefore, when hyperbaric oxygen therapy provides exposure to oxygen, it gives your body cells a much-needed boost toward better health.
Now that we understand what hyperbaric chamber treatments are and the effects that they have on the body, let’s dig a little deeper and pinpoint exactly how they speed up healing.
When your body cells encounter disease-causing agents like bacteria, they naturally activate your immune system. Your immune system then releases inflammatory cells to fight them off the bacteria or repair damaged cells. This activity can result in swelling or pain which can get quite uncomfortable.
Prolonged inflammation can also become counterproductive and hinder the very recovery it is supposed to achieve. More so in chronic conditions like diabetes which can dysregulate the immune system such that it does not stop sending out inflammation signals when it should.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is effective in reducing inflammation because it oxygenates cells thereby making them more able to fight bacteria. When the threat of bacteria is managed, your immune system stops releasing inflammatory cells.
Increased oxygen delivery can, further, improve immune system regulation to prevent prolonged or frequent unwarranted inflammation.
Promotion of Tissue Regeneration
Some medical conditions, like wounds or typical infections, damage tissues in your body. Other more severe conditions like a stroke, for instance, cause a prolonged lack of adequate oxygen to tissues. This can result in dead tissues in the parts of the body that were oxygen-starved.
The high concentration of oxygen during HBOT stimulates damaged body cells to repair themselves.
However, if the cells are dead, reviving them may not be a possibility. Instead, the healthy tissues around those dead cells get activated by hyperbaric oxygen and begin to regenerate new cells while getting rid of the dead ones.
Such regeneration is often witnessed in cases where:
- HBOT patients that had compromised blood vessels develop new and healthier blood vessels after surgery or strokes.
- Skin graft and wound patients undergo hyperbaric oxygen therapy and heal better and faster because the tissue around their wound site regenerates and forms connective tissue to close the wound.
Optimized Antibiotic Action
Some types of bacteria thrive in low oxygen conditions. This means that when your body cells are not accessing and absorbing enough oxygen, even antibiotics may not be fully able to eliminate the diseases caused by this type of bacteria.
Pairing hyperbaric oxygen therapy and a course of antibiotics usually increases the effectiveness of the medication. This is because the bacteria can no longer thrive in tge presence of oxygen and the antibiotics are thus able to kill them off. It is a much faster and healthier approach than having a patient on medication for prolonged periods or high dosages.
Mobilizing Stem Cells
Stem cells are the main source of cells in your body. They divide and either produce new stem cells or cells that have specific functions.
For example, we mentioned above that HBOT can stimulate your body to regenerate blood vessels. These blood vessels do not just originate from any cell. They start from a stem cell that is specifically generated to have all the features required to perform the functions of blood vessels.
This is only one example but due to their unique abilities, stem cells are essential whenever your body needs to repair or regenerate cells for healing.
Therefore, when patients receive hyperbaric oxygen therapy their bodies can start to heal faster because stem cells also get activated by higher oxygen supply. This positive effect is often seen in patients that have suffered spinal injuries, burns, strokes, and bone infections, and gotten HBOT as part of the treatment regimen.
The extent to which hyperbaric oxygen therapy can speed up healing varies on a case-by-case basis. Let’s look at a specific comparison for context.
Recovery from conditions like decompression sickness and carbon monoxide therapy is significantly accelerated by HBOT because, in both instances, the body just needs exposure to oxygen to regain its optimal balance of oxygen circulation. Such patients recover in just a few days.
In contrast, a patient receiving HBOT after a stroke can take weeks or months to register major progress. But, without it, they may have taken even longer or failed to achieve key recovery markers like blood vessel regeneration.
Suffice it to say, there is no defined rate of how much hyperbaric therapy will speed up the recovery of patients with specific conditions. Healing is not linear or similar for everyone. However, the acceleration effect is evident when the therapy is administered appropriately and this is backed by innumerable positive patient reports.
Factors Influencing the Acceleration Effect
Patients that keep up with their HBOT sessions as prescribed and get the right length and treatment parameters (the balance of pressure and oxygen)
are likely to recover sooner. This is because consistent treatment until the patient is stable prevents regression. Consistency, however, is not getting more sessions than necessary but rather getting enough sessions based on your condition.
- Patient Care
Pairing hyperbaric oxygen therapy with the right standard of care allows recovery to come along sooner. For example, when using HBOT for non-healing wounds, proper wound care is vital. Without it, the accelerated healing effect that hyperbaric oxygen should provide may be hampered.
In any scenario, be it an exam, research, eating, or climbing a mountain, having optimal conditions enables you to handle the task more efficiently and thrive at it. This is similar to what hyperbaric oxygen therapy does to the body; it creates optimal conditions for healing to take place thereby making it come along faster. So, if you have been apprehensive of its positive effects as another medical fad, we hope this blog has changed your mind, and demonstrated that it is all based on verifiable science.