High-Pressure Healing: Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy

Taking more oxygen into the body offers revolutionary treatment for healing a wide range of medical conditions



Some extreme medical conditions require unconventional treatments. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy has long been used for scuba divers to treat a condition called “the bends” (often known as decompression sickness). Today, HBOT is a critical component of care for a wide variety of medical conditions resistant to healing, which is why it was recently highlighted as a part of a path forward for Chasing the Cure’s Shannon. After beating the odds and surviving tongue cancer, Shannon is left with a deteriorating jaw. On her journey towards healing she requires HBOT.


Shannon's story was first featured on episode two of chasing the cure


Let’s have a look at HBOT – what it is, how it works, when it’s used, and if there are any risks to the process.

What is hyperbaric oxygen therapy and how does it work?
By increasing the amount of oxygen in the body, damaged tissue can receive a healing boost. But our bodies are only designed to take in so much oxygen from the air. HBOT increases the pressure of the air a patient breathes, usually two to three times the pressure of the typical environment, allowing the lungs to take in more oxygen than is ordinarily possible.

HBOT is an outpatient procedure. High-pressure rooms are fitted for one person or multiple people. During treatment, patients will typically feel an increase in pressure in their ears similar to being in an airplane.

The most common treatment duration is roughly 30 minutes to two hours. The number of treatments patients require will depend on the type of medical condition. For severe wounds, patients might have upwards of 20 to 40 treatments. Other conditions could be treated in as few as three visits.

When is HBOT used?
In Shannon’s case, HBOT is used to treat bone necrosis or the death of bone cells due to an irreversible external injury. The treatment is also commonly used to treat burns; embolisms; decompression sickness; carbon monoxide poisoning; slow healing, severe wounds such as those often related to diabetes; and many more conditions.

There are also cases where HBOT is used to help prevent certain medical conditions, like osteoradionecrosis (see Chasing the Cure’s Quendella’s recent osteoradionecrosis case on the show below). It's also a complementary treatment for patients who have complications following skin grafts.

Quendella's story was first featured on episode three of chasing the cure

Are there risks to HBOT?
As with any medical treatment, HBOT isn't without risks. While most side effects are mild and reversible, others are more severe.

Here are some of the common risks associated with HBOT:

  • Fatigue, headache, and vomiting: These are side effects of the high-pressure environment. 
  • Reversible myopia:The high pressure can cause damage to the lens of the eye that can last for weeks or months. 
  • Claustrophobia: Hyperbaric chambers can feel confining during therapy.
  • Barotrauma: These injuries can include middle ear injury or lung collapse. 
  • Oxygen toxicity:Too much oxygen can cause seizures 
  • Decompression illness: This occurs when the body has a rapid uptake of nitrogen once the body breathes air at normal pressure. It's also called "the bends." 

HBOT has seen quite a rise in popularity—not just for the medical conditions noted above, but for conditions where HBOT isn’t an FDA-approved treatment.

According to the FDA, HBOT is not an approved treatment for some conditions for which it is often marketed, including (but not limited to):

  • Heart Disease
  • Autism
  • Arthritis
  • Asthma
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Parkinson's
  • Cerebral Palsy

For FDA-approved conditions, insurance will typically cover the treatments. To determine whether HBOT could be a viable form of treatment for you or help your illness consult with your physician.

E. Napoletano is an award-winning journalist and the recipient of the 2019 Illinois Women’s Press Association first-place prize for her feature on the traumatic effects of family separation policies at the border.