Q There was a recent article in The Post and Courier about hyperbaric oxygen therapy for dogs and cats. It was not clear to me how this works and whether its actually helpful or just a new gimmick. What do our local experts say?

A: In Ecclesiastes 1:9, King Solomon wisely notes, “... there is nothing new under the sun.” This can be loosely applied to hyperbaric oxygen therapy, as this has been around in one form or another for 350 years.

A British physician named Henshaw used air in a compression chamber as a form of hyperbaric therapy in 1662. Oxygen was identified in 1775 and would ultimately redefine hyperbaric medicine.

As early as 1887, hyperbaric oxygen was used to treat rabbits, which had been deliberately infected, and found that those treated had increased survival rates and lower fevers.

In 1937, the therapy was first used for decompression sickness or “the bends.” Since that time, it has proven beneficial in a number of conditions, such as thermal and chemical burns, brain and spinal cord injuries, post-surgical swelling, crushing injuries, snake and spider bites, deep wound and bone infections and skin wounds, to name a few.

So, no this is not a gimmick, and it certainly is not new. It is, however, a new player in veterinary medicine. This is largely because the chambers have become a bit more affordable at a time when pet owners are demanding the state of the art for their pets.

The way it works is fairly simple. When an animal is placed in an oxygen-rich environment under pressure, the concentration of oxygen in the blood and tissues will increase. In a hyperbaric chamber, the amount of oxygen in plasma increases approximately 17 times normal. At that saturation, the oxygen needs of the body at rest could, theoretically, be met with the plasma alone, without any red blood cells.

When tissue of any kind is damaged, a major problem is the disruption of oxygen being supplied to the cells, which results in the death of the tissue. Using hyperbaric oxygen therapy to provide oxygen to these cells allows them to survive.

One of the fastest-growing applications of hyperbaric medicine is in neurology and neurosurgery.

Swelling of the brain and spinal cord is a serious complication associated with trauma, disc-related injuries, strokes and tumors.

Hyperbaric oxygen has been shown to significantly reduce this swelling and enhance the rate and degree of recovery. A recent Human Neurosurgical Review stated that hyperbaric therapy is now considered the state of the art in treating neurologic injuries.

Studies suggest that the greatest benefit of hyperbaric therapy is seen when it is applied early in the course of the injury or disease, which makes it an important tool to an emergency and referral hospital.

Snake bites are a common problem among patients at our emergency facilities, and swelling and tissue death occur. Treatment, which may include antivenin, can be prolonged and expensive. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy has been shown to speed and enhance recovery and reduce hospitalization times.

Other patients with blunt trauma and crushing injuries have benefited from hyperbaric therapy.

Oxygen is toxic to many strains of bacteria and hyperbaric therapy is a proven tool in treating deep-seated infections, especially those involving anaerobic bacteria. Hyperbaric therapy has proven beneficial in cases of pneumonia and other pulmonary conditions.

The therapy has been shown to boost immune function, improve restoration of compromised tissue, speed wound healing and reduce post-operative swelling and pain. It also has been shown to improve the function of stem cells.

We recognize that hyperbaric therapy is not a panacea and that there remains much investigation to fully identify areas where it may be of practical benefit.

We also know that there are many areas where it is an absolutely proven methods of treatment, either by itself, or with other proven therapies. There are many areas where its benefits are not firmly established. The side effects of this therapy are minimal.

Dr. Henri Bianucci and Dr. Perry Jameson are with Veterinary Specialty Care LLC. Send questions to petdocs@postandcourier.com.