Can air pressure help healing?

Under the microscope

Asked by: Lorraine Musa, Bristol

Answered by: Simon Wilson, technical director, London Diving Chamber, Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth, London

How did air pressure become used as a medical treatment?

Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBO) is a treatment which involves administering oxygen to patients while they are in a decompression chamber, the type most commonly associated with deep sea divers and treatment of decompression illness "the bends". Research started in the 1960s and 1970s and was mainly carried out by the US Navy and the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medicine Society which now lists around 13 different conditions helped by HBO therapy.



How does it work?

A patient will typically sit in the chamber for 90 minutes and the atmosphere will be compressed to around two and half times atmospheric pressure. Apart from periodically "popping" their ears, patients should feel no physical effect. Once the compression level has been reached the patient is given pure oxygen to breathe.



Why does it work?

Every cell in the body needs oxygen to survive and to heal. Under compression, breathing 100 per cent oxygen means that the vital gas is distributed into the body on a cellular level more effectively and more oxygen dissolves into the blood plasma. The body thus becomes "super-oxygenated" and as a result oxygen can be carried to places in the body where it does not normally reach. Capillaries grow again and tissue that has been dead even for many years can be restored. The two facets of the treatment, compression and oxygen, have to be administered in unison. Compression itself will have little physiological effect and, even if breathing pure oxygen, the body will only metabolise around 30 per cent of the gas under normal atmospheric conditions.



What can it treat?

In addition to decompression illness and carbon monoxide poisoning, HBO therapy is used to treat arterial gas embolisms, slow-healing, infected wounds, arterial insufficiencies such as central retinal artery occlusion, severe anaemia and certain types of necrosis, such as necrotising fasciitis. Together with the Royal Marsden Hospital there is now a study being done into the effectiveness of HBO therapy for pelvic cancer patients suffering post-radiation therapy damage. The treatment is also used by many MS sufferers and although there is no conclusive evidence that HBO therapy can alleviate the condition, there is no denying some find it can alleviate symptoms. It is also used electively by many sports professionals for injuries and recovery. Top athletes will use a chamber after an endurance competition, such as a marathon, to help them recover quicker.



What conditions has it the potential to treat?

As well as the Royal Marsden study on cancer patients there have also been positive studies into the effect HBO therapy has on liver regeneration. However, the main growth area for hyperbaric oxygen treatment in the coming years will be on treating diabetes. The condition causes poor circulation in lower limbs and as a result patients are prone to ulcers and lesions which are difficult to heal and frequently lead to amputation. HBO is effective in treating these wounds and as diabetes rates rise, it will become increasingly important. In countries where HBO therapy is part of the healthcare culture, surgery for diabetic wounds is much lower than in the UK. In the US and Australia, it is a common treatment and many hospitals have a hyperbaric chamber. In the UK there are only around 12.

Interview by Nick Harding

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Order Fulfilment

    £14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

    Recruitment Genius: Production Operative

    £13000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to a period of sustained an...

    Day In a Page

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering