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Harnessing the Power of Oxygen Therapy

The University of Kansas Health System is home to the region's only 24/7 emergent hyperbaric oxygen therapy chambers in Kansas City and Kansas

Hyperbaric oxygen chamber
During hyperbaric oxygen treatment, patients can listen to music or watch TV.

November is traditionally the month we flip on our furnaces or light a fire to ward off fall's chill, but it also can be a month when hospitals see a spike in patients with carbon monoxide poisoning from appliances fueled by gas, oil, kerosene or wood.

The University of Kansas Health System is the only hospital in the Kansas City metro area and the state of Kansas to have a 24/7 emergent hyperbaric center to treat patients with carbon monoxide poisoning safely.

"We will take cases that require immediate hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT). Other facilities will not," says Steven M. Orr, MD, director of wound care and hyperbaric medicine services at The University of Kansas Health System.

How oxygen heals

Inside the hyperbaric oxygen chamber – a pressurized tube that looks like a larger version of one of the cylinders you'd use at the drive-thru of your bank – a patient breathes nearly 100% oxygen while experiencing pressure greater than sea level.

"When under pressure, oxygen behaves like a drug with specific indications and side effects," says Dr. Orr. "That's the medicinal effect. Hyperbaric oxygen heals wounds that require a higher oxygen level than patients are able to generate themselves."

According to Dr. Orr, the pressure raises the oxygen level in the body 10 to 13 times above normal levels. This brings more oxygen to blood, which promotes healing. In the case of carbon monoxide poisoning, the high levels of oxygen displace carbon monoxide from the hemoglobin molecule in the blood.

Carbon monoxide poisoning

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More than carbon monoxide

In addition to treating carbon monoxide poisoning, HBOT has many other uses. Originally, it was used for decompression sickness (also called 'the bends" or "divers' disease"). In the 1950s and 1960s, heart surgeries were performed in hyperbaric chambers prior to the use of heart/lung machines.

In 1984, HBOT made its way into mainstream media when Michael Jackson was treated in a hyperbaric chamber after being severely burned while filming a Pepsi commercial. After the accident, tabloids printed photos of Jackson inside a hyperbaric chamber. This sparked rumors that he owned and slept in a hyperbaric chamber in hopes of living an unnaturally long life.

While hyperbaric oxygen therapy won't help you live to be 150, Dr. Orr says it can help with burns.

"Hyperbaric chambers are not routinely used for burn patients, but they can decrease the length of stay and the number of skin grafts," Dr. Orr says.

HBOT is often touted as a cure-all, especially among celebrities who claim it helps with everything from wrinkles to stress. However, most of these claims are not supported. The Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society indicates HBOT for use in 14 conditions.

However, scientists continue to look into the potential of using oxygen therapy for other purposes, including cancer care and traumatic brain injury.

Safety and risks

An HBOT treatment typically takes about 2 hours. Many people say it feels like flying in an airplane with pressure changes in the cabin. You may feel fullness in your ears, which can be relieved with yawning or swallowing.

"When you go into a hyperbaric chamber, it's the same effect as a 33-foot dive into seawater," Dr. Orr says. "You're actually at that depth and pressure for 90 minutes."

Scheduled air breaks reduce the possibility of oxygen toxicity and are part of The University of Kansas Health System's safety protocol.

"A board-certified physician in hyperbaric medicine directs the program and supervises each 'dive' while a certified hyperbaric nurse administrates the unit and attends to patients," Dr. Orr says.

Choose wisely

Today, finding a hyperbaric oxygen chamber is as easy as searching on eBay. Portable chambers are available online and for around $3,000-$8,000. However, Dr. Orr urges patients to use only legitimate HBOT treatments that meet the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services guidelines, and only when prescribed by a licensed physician.

"Beware of 'topical oxygen' and 'hyperbaric lite' treatments," he says. "These have not been shown to be effective."

Using home treatments for off-label uses can be dangerous and is not recommended by the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society or the FDA.

"At The University of Kansas Health System, patients can be assured they will receive safe, effective hyperbaric oxygen treatment, administered by certified, experienced professionals."