Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is healing many ills
CHARLOTTE — The patient slides into a clear, giant cylinder. The thick door shuts tightly behind her. The technician turns some dials, and the treatment begins.
This is how many patients begin a session of hyperbaric oxygen therapy, a treatment that has largely outgrown early skepticism and is spreading as an option for various medical conditions. The treatment typically involves a patient entering a chamber set at a pressure two to three times greater than sea level — and breathing 100 percent oxygen.
It’s used to treat more than a dozen medical conditions and has become especially popular in treating serious wounds that fail to heal, including those related to diabetes or radiation from cancer treatments. In some cases, the treatment can help patients save feet or limbs from amputation. One study found that hyperbaric oxygen therapy decreased major amputations in patients with diabetic foot ulcers from about 33 percent to almost 9 percent.
Meanwhile, some centers offer hyperbaric therapy to treat conditions from autism to Lyme disease, even though many experts argue there isn’t enough scientific evidence to prove that it works. “We have to have reasonable proof that supports the use of hyperbaric oxygen,” said Dr. John Feldmeier, head of the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society, based in Durham, N.C.
For those being treated for serious diabetic wounds, hyperbaric therapy allows oxygen to reach damaged tissue to help healing, even when blood flow is compromised.
Jim Postell, a 56-year-old retired police officer in Concord, N.C., was afraid he was going to lose his right foot to a diabetic wound. It developed gangrene and it hurt so much that he could barely stand.
Before the treatments started, his doctor had to remove a lot of damaged tissue.
“When I first saw that, I would have never thought in a million years that that was going to heal up,” he said. But the therapy worked and the wound healed.
At the Duke Center for Hyperbaric Medicine, the hyperbaric center has “multiplace” chambers that can treat 18 to 20 patients at a time. These rooms can be pressurized, and patients typically breathe oxygen through head tents.
The Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society has approved 14 uses based on extensive research, and treatments are generally covered by Medicare.
There are some clinics that offer hyperbaric therapy for conditions outside the widely accepted uses. Charlotte Metro Hyperbarics in Huntersville sees patients for autism, cerebral palsy and Lyme disease, among others. Athletes trying to speed recovery from injuries are also treated.
Patients sign a consent form where they acknowledge they’re not guaranteed the therapy will be successful in their case. Federal law prohibits clinics from promoting unapproved uses for the chambers, and Charlotte Metro Hyperbarics doesn’t advertise the therapy as a “cure.”
Clients mostly pay out of pocket because many insurers don’t cover these conditions. Treatments are typically 40 sessions, which range from $75 to $150 each.
Half of the clinic’s patients are from out-of-state.
“We’re the only center, in a lot of cases, for many people that will even allow them to get in the chamber” for what they want to get treated for, said clinic owner Anson Hall.
For treating autism, Dr. Danielle Rose, clinic medical director, said that the chambers can stimulate and regulate a patient’s immune system with the profusion of oxygen and lowering of acids in the body. She said studies have suggested that autism can be aggravated by an immune system that’s out of balance.
The Autism Society of North Carolina neither endorses nor discourages hyperbaric therapy, but encourages parents to make informed decisions.
Many doctors in hyperbaric medicine maintain that there’s not enough evidence to support using the therapy for autism. “I would feel (it) would be unethical for me to refer a child with autism, where I don’t even have an inkling of any evidence that it actually works,” said Dr. Richard Moon, medical director of the Duke Center for Hyperbaric Medicine and Environmental Physiology.