Recently, I visited the Two Harbors area of Catalina Island - our family calls it Paradise. USC has a marine biology center there, where graduate students from all over the United States conduct research. We were given a fascinating tour. The Center has the only 24/7 hyperbaric oxygen chamber in the area. Traditionally, hyperbaric chambers have existed for the sole purpose of treating decompression sickness and air embolism - that is, removing gas bubbles from the blood of deep-sea divers. This condition, known as the bends, can occur after long periods of time deep under water. Lately, I've been following the medical literature about a variety of uses for hyperbaric chambers, and I find it intriguing.What is a hyperbaric chamber? HBOT (HyperBaric Oxygen Therapy) is the medical use of oxygen at a higher concentration than that which normally exists in the atmosphere. It requires a pressure chamber and a means of delivering 100% oxygen, and is operated by personnel who monitor the timing and amount of pressure required. The tissues and cells are saturated with oxygen, ensuring an even distribution in the blood. As a result, damaged tissues and cells are quickly replaced and the healing period is shortened. Why would some non-deep sea divers find themselves in a hyperbaric chamber? *It increases oxygen concentration in the whole body, so it is especially useful where there is decreased or limited blood flow *It energizes the production of fresh blood vessels in locations of the body experiencing low blood circulation, and increases blood circulation where there is arterial blockage *It causes arterial dilation - in other words, the size of the blood vessels are increased more than normal, which increases the flow of oxygen to organs *Stem cells, responsible for cell rejuvenation, are carried much faster around the body to injured areas, ensuring that injury time is minimized. Hyperbaric oxygen has been used for athletes, cutting back on their downtime after injury. In fact, the rapidly growing list of conditions now being treated or being considered for treatment by HBOT include air or gas embolism, carbon monoxide poisoning, gas gangrene, crush injuries, compartment syndrome, decompression sickness, problem wounds, diabetic foot ulcers, diabetic retinopathy and neuropathy, blood loss anemia, intracranial abscesses, various skin infections, osteomyelitis (bone infections), radiation injuries, skin grafts, thermal burns, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, inflammatory bowel disease, traumatic brain injury, acute exhaustion, and even autism. (A small 2009 study of autistic children found that 40 hourly treatments provided significant improvement in the children's behavior immediately following treatment sessions. More studies, of course, are being conducted.) The typical treatment lasts from one to two hours at a time. The number of treatments depends on the condition; for example, a typical candidate for wound healing may receive one treatment per day, five days/week, for 20 to 30 days. The risks of HBOT are related to being in a high pressure chamber. Pressure changes can cause a "squeeze" or barotrauma in the tissues surrounding trapped air inside the body, including in the lungs, behind the eardrums, inside the sinus spaces, or underneath dental fillings. Breathing high pressure oxygen may cause oxygen toxicity. Temporary blurred vision can be the result of the swelling of the lens of the eye, and rarely, cataracts can be worsened. And the cost of these treatments? In clinics, it may range between $100 to $250 per hour, and in hospitals, perhaps as much as $1,000 for that hour. In order to use the chamber on Catalina Island, you would likely also incur the cost of an emergency helicopter ride to get there. This is one of those cases where the price may get you before the disease does! I hope you found my trip to Catalina Island as interesting as I did. Good health to you all. Dr. Alan Frischer is former chief of staff and former chief of medicine at Downey Regional Medical Center. Write to him in care of this newspaper at 8301 E. Florence Ave., Suite 100, Downey, CA 90240.
********** Published: September 13, 2012 - Volume 11 - Issue 22