Speeding Healing: Hyperbaric Oxygen (HBO) Therapy

Written by Rachel Nall | Published on July 18, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD


Red blood cells travel throughout your body, carrying necessary nutrients and gases where they need to go. One thing the red blood cells carry is oxygen, which your body uses to create healthy tissues and repair damaged ones.

Your doctor may recommend hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBO therapy) if you have a wound that is not healing at a normal rate. Diabetes or a radiation injury, for instance, can cause your wounds to heal too slowly. The therapy delivers higher levels of air pressure and oxygen to your tissues. This painless treatment may help to encourage healing.

What Conditions Does the Therapy Treat?

Therapy in a hyperbaric chamber can be used either to encourage wound healing or to provide oxygen to tissues that may have been damaged by inhalation injuries, such as carbon monoxide inhalation. The therapy can help your body fight off infection too.

For wound healing, your doctor may recommend sitting in a HBO chamber several times a week for a few weeks if you have experienced any of the following skin injuries:

  • burns
  • gangrene
  • radiation injury
  • skin grafts or skin flaps

When you enter a HBO chamber, you are inhaling 100 percent oxygen at a higher rate of pressure than you typically breathe, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. (AHRQ)

This can put oxygen back into tissues that may have been deprived of oxygen. The extra oxygen stimulates healing. Your doctor may recommend HBO therapy for these conditions:

  • decompression sickness (from a diving injury)
  • carbon monoxide poisoning
  • stroke
  • brain injury

Although benefits for the following conditions are not scientifically substantiated, HBO therapy has been proposed for:

  • allergies
  • arthritis
  • autism
  • cancer
  • cerebral palsy
  • chronic fatigue syndrome
  • cirrhosis
  • fibromyalgia
  • stomach ulcers

How Is the Treatment Performed?

HBO therapy can be delivered in a one-person chamber, where you lie down and are slid into a clear plastic tube. Multi-person chambers where several people can sit or lie down inside are available at certain medical facilities.

The therapy relies on simply sitting and breathing in the 100 percent oxygen. Treatments may last anywhere from one to two hours.

Note that environments that are 100 percent oxygen are highly flammable. Don’t bring anything into the HBO chamber that could easily catch fire. Examples include:

  • a lighter
  • battery-powered devices
  • hair care products
  • wound care products, particularly those that are petroleum-based

If you have a question about whether or not you can bring an object into the chamber, ask your doctor or HBO chamber specialist.

What Results Can I Expect?

Therapy in an HBO chamber often requires numerous sessions of treatment to be most effective. The therapy is often used along with other treatments. For example, treating inhalation injuries often requires fewer treatment sessions than a non-healing wound does.

In the case of non-healing wounds, your doctor will often recommend HBO therapy along with treatments such as wound care and bandaging. Your non-healing wound may require 25 to 30 treatments before the wound fully heals.

What Are the Treatment’s Side Effects?

Therapy in a hyperbaric chamber is not associated with serious side effects, but breathing pure oxygen does have some risks. Side effects can be as mild as feeling pressure build up in your ears or as severe as having a seizure from excess buildup of oxygen in your central nervous system.

Other potential side effects include:

  • temporary nearsightedness
  • ear injuries to your middle and inner ear, such as eardrum rupture or leakage
  • organ damage due to changes in air pressure

Let your doctor know if you start to feel discomfort during HBO therapy.

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