What Is a Hyperbaric Chamber?
Do you know what a hyperbaric chamber is? Well, they have gained great popularity in recent years. They’re part of what’s known as hyperbaric oxygen therapy. There are many misunderstandings regarding them, especially about the benefits associated with their use. Indeed, it has been said that it can cure cancer or even reverse the advance of Alzheimer’s disease.
Unsurprisingly, there’s no scientific basis that a hyperbaric chamber provides such miraculous benefits. What is true is that it has been, and continues to be, used to treat different health conditions. To help you to understand exactly what it is, we’re going to tell you everything you need to know about it!
Characteristics of a hyperbaric chamber
Hyperbaric chambers are a structure in which the air pressure inside is raised to a higher level than normal air pressure. In general, they do so at two or three times atmospheric pressure, the latter being the most common. Upon completion, 100% oxygen is supplied to the area. Hyperbaric chambers can be individual or for several people (the latter are rooms).
The Underwater and Hyperbaric Medical Society (UHMS) stipulates that the oxygen supply must be at least 95% in order for a hyperbaric chamber to be considered hyperbaric. As the experts point out, the duration of each session varies from 1.5 to 2 hours, and can be carried out 1 to 3 times a day.
Most of today’s chambers are built with a transparent methacrylate cylinder. This is to avoid claustrophobia during the procedure.
In multi-person hyperbaric chambers, individuals breathe oxygen through a face mask, hood, or endotracheal tube. There’s no substantial difference between one procedure or the other, although multiplace chambers allow more careful monitoring of critically ill patients.
A hyperbaric environment with pure oxygen results in a significant increase in the oxygen supply to the blood (hyperoxemia) and tissues (hyperoxia). This is achieved by increasing the pressure, as the Boyle-Mariotte law and Henry’s law are confirmed during the process.
As the researchers point out, the air is made up of approximately 21% oxygen under normal conditions at sea level. As a consequence, this results in an alveolar oxygen pressure of about 100 millimeters of mercury (mmHg).
Under hyperbaric conditions, alveolar oxygen pressure rises to about 2280 mmHg. These types of chambers have experienced great popularity, so much so that most medical centers have one and you can even get a portable version (to treat altitude sickness).
Benefits of a hyperbaric chamber
Apart from knowing what a hyperbaric chamber is, you are surely more interested in knowing its benefits. Certainly, these types of chambers have become something of a medical panacea. The FDA approves the use of hyperbaric chambers only in the following contexts:
- Decompression sickness.
- Hearing loss of an idiopathic nature.
- Loss of vision due to obstruction of blood flow (when sudden and painless).
- Non-healing diabetic foot ulcers (or other similar wounds).
- Crush injuries.
- Carbon monoxide poisoning.
- Air and gas bubbles in the blood vessels.
- Severe burns.
- Anemia (when blood transfusions cannot be used).
- Gas gangrene.
- Serious infections of the skin and bones.
- Radiation injuries.
- Skin graft flaps at risk of tissue death.
In general, a good many of its uses are classified based on three main effects: the acceleration of wound healing, the improvement of angiogenesis, and antimicrobial effects. Although it’s true that other possible effects of hyperbaric chambers are being studied, for the moment the previous contexts are the only ones scientifically endorsed.
Possible beneficial effects have been suggested as part of the treatment of SARS-CoV-2. Despite this, up to the time of writing these lines, its use in these contexts has not been officially approved. Hyperbaric chambers are useless for treating cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, Lyme disease, autism, and other conditions outside of those mentioned.
Risks of hyperbaric chambers
When hyperbaric chambers are used under controlled conditions and in the aforementioned contexts, their effects are generally safe. Even so, the following complications may arise:
- Ear pain and sinusitis.
- Rupture of the tympanic membrane (and other injuries to the middle ear).
- Temporary changes in vision.
- Lung collapses (in very rare cases).
Using the chamber can cause what is known as the Lorrain Smith effect. It’s also known as pulmonary oxygen toxicity, and is characterized by coughs, chest pain, pain on inhalation, and dyspnea. This effect is only temporary, and resolves after leaving the chamber. Other side effects are barotrauma from the pressures used and anxiety from confinement in the chamber.
On the other hand, the chamber may be contraindicated for people who have ear injuries, lung conditions, colds, or fevers. Due to the increased concentration of oxygen, the risk of fire is a possibility in uncontrolled places. Before using a hyperbaric chamber, the following is recommended:
- Quitting smoking
- Avoiding perfumes, deodorants, hairspray, and other similar products.
- Avoiding the intake of alcohol and carbonated drinks at least 4 hours before entering.
- No jewelry or wigs are allowed.
To minimize the associated complications, it’s recommended to carry out the sessions only in places that have the necessary certification. The use of the camera must be endorsed and monitored by a qualified doctor and must be discontinued in the event of moderate or severe symptoms.
Although it’s true that many of its effects have been scientifically endorsed, many others that their defenders proclaim don’t have the proper backing by science.
- Kahle, A. C., & Cooper, J. S. Hyperbaric Physiological and Pharmacological Effects of Gases. 2017.
- Kjellberg A, De Maio A, Lindholm P. Can hyperbaric oxygen safely serve as an anti-inflammatory treatment for COVID-19? Med Hypotheses. 2020 Nov;144:110224.
- Ortega MA, Fraile-Martinez O, García-Montero C, Callejón-Peláez E, Sáez MA, Álvarez-Mon MA, García-Honduvilla N, Monserrat J, Álvarez-Mon M, Bujan J, Canals ML. A General Overview on the Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy: Applications, Mechanisms and Translational Opportunities. Medicina (Kaunas). 2021 Aug 24;57(9):864.