Hyperbaric oxygen therapy involves breathing pure oxygen in a pressurized room or tube. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is a well-established treatment for decompression sickness, a hazard of scuba diving. Other conditions treated with hyperbaric oxygen therapy include serious infections, bubbles of air in your blood vessels, and wounds that won't heal as a result of diabetes or radiation injury.

In a hyperbaric oxygen therapy chamber, the air pressure is increased to three times higher than normal air pressure. Under these conditions, your lungs can gather more oxygen than would be possible breathing pure oxygen at normal air pressure.

Your blood carries this oxygen throughout your body. This helps fight bacteria and stimulate the release of substances called growth factors and stem cells, which promote healing.

Your body's tissues need an adequate supply of oxygen to function. When tissue is injured, it requires even more oxygen to survive. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy increases the amount of oxygen your blood can carry. An increase in blood oxygen temporarily restores normal levels of blood gases and tissue function to promote healing and fight infection.

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is used to treat several medical conditions. And medical institutions use it in different ways. Your doctor may suggest hyperbaric oxygen therapy if you have one of the following conditions:

  • Anemia, severe
  • Brain abscess
  • Bubbles of air in your blood vessels (arterial gas embolism)
  • Burn
  • Decompression sickness
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning
  • Crushing injury
  • Deafness, sudden
  • Gangrene
  • Infection of skin or bone that causes tissue death
  • Nonhealing wounds, such as a diabetic foot ulcer
  • Radiation injury
  • Skin graft or skin flap at risk of tissue death
  • Vision loss, sudden and painless

The evidence is insufficient to support claims that hyperbaric oxygen therapy can effectively treat the following conditions:

  • AIDS/HIV
  • Allergies
  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Arthritis
  • Asthma
  • Autism
  • Bell's palsy
  • Brain injury
  • Cancer
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Cirrhosis
  • Depression
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Gastrointestinal ulcers
  • Heart disease
  • Heatstroke
  • Hepatitis
  • Migraine
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Parkinson's disease
  • Spinal cord injury
  • Sports injury
  • Stroke

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is generally a safe procedure. Complications are rare. But this treatment does carry some risk.

Potential risks include:

  • Temporary nearsightedness (myopia) caused by temporary eye lens changes
  • Middle ear injuries, including leaking fluid and eardrum rupture, due to increased air pressure
  • Lung collapse caused by air pressure changes (barotrauma)
  • Seizures as a result of too much oxygen (oxygen toxicity) in your central nervous system
  • In certain circumstances, fire — due to the oxygen-rich environment of the treatment chamber

Pure oxygen can cause fire if a spark or flame ignites a source of fuel. Because of this, you can't take items such as lighters or battery-powered devices into the hyperbaric oxygen therapy chamber. In addition, to limit sources of excess fuel, you may need to remove hair and skin care products that are petroleum based and potentially a fire hazard. Ask a member of your health care team for specific instructions before your first hyperbaric oxygen therapy session.

During hyperbaric oxygen therapy

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy typically is performed as an outpatient procedure and doesn't require hospitalization. If you're already hospitalized and require hyperbaric oxygen therapy, you'll remain in the hospital for therapy. Or you'll be transported to a hyperbaric oxygen facility that's separate from the hospital.

Depending on the type of medical institution you go to and the reason for treatment, you may receive hyperbaric oxygen therapy in one of two settings:

  • A unit designed for 1 person. In an individual (monoplace) unit, you lie down on a table that slides into a clear plastic tube.
  • A room designed to accommodate several people. In a multiperson hyperbaric oxygen room — which usually looks like a large hospital room — you may sit or lie down. You may receive oxygen through a mask over your face or a lightweight, clear hood placed over your head.

During hyperbaric oxygen therapy, the air pressure in the room is about two to three times normal air pressure. The increased air pressure will create a temporary feeling of fullness in your ears — similar to what you might feel in an airplane or at a high elevation. You can relieve that feeling by yawning or swallowing.

For most conditions, therapy lasts approximately two hours. Members of your health care team will monitor you and the therapy unit throughout your treatment.

After hyperbaric oxygen therapy

You may feel somewhat tired or hungry following your treatment. This doesn't limit normal activities.

To benefit from hyperbaric oxygen therapy, you'll likely need more than one session. The number of sessions depends on your medical condition. Some conditions, such as carbon monoxide poisoning, might be treated in three visits. Others, such as nonhealing wounds, may require 20 to 40 treatments.

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy alone can often effectively treat decompression sickness, arterial gas embolism and severe carbon monoxide poisoning.

To effectively treat other conditions, hyperbaric oxygen therapy is used as part of a comprehensive treatment plan and administered with other therapies and drugs that fit your individual needs.

  • Expertise. Mayo Clinic's board-certified specialists in undersea and hyperbaric medicine administer thousands of treatments each year. Mayo's program is accredited by the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society in conjunction with The Joint Commission.
  • State-of-the-art facility. Mayo Clinic has one of the largest hyperbaric oxygen therapy chambers in the United States. It accommodates several people at a time.
  • Teamwork. Hyperbaric medicine doctors work with experts in many other specialties, including vascular medicine, radiation oncology and reconstructive surgical specialties. This multidisciplinary team of specialized experts collaborates on your care.
  • Research. Mayo doctors and researchers share new medical advancements and treatment guidelines for hyperbaric oxygen therapy. Hyperbaric medicine is part of Mayo's Aerospace Medicine program, which has a long history of research on low-oxygen conditions in flight.

At Mayo Clinic, we assemble a team of specialists who take the time to listen and thoroughly understand your health issues and concerns. We tailor the care you receive to your personal health care needs. You can trust our specialists to collaborate and offer you the best possible outcomes, safety and service.

Mayo Clinic is a not-for-profit medical institution that reinvests all earnings into improving medical practice, research and education. We're constantly involved in innovation and medical research, finding solutions to improve your care and quality of life. Your doctor or someone on your medical team is likely involved in research related to your condition.

Our patients tell us that the quality of their interactions, our attention to detail and the efficiency of their visits mean health care — and trusted answers — like they've never experienced.

Why Choose Mayo Clinic

What Sets Mayo Clinic Apart

Your hyperbaric oxygen therapy at Mayo Clinic is based on your doctor getting to know you and understanding your health issues. Together, you'll define a comprehensive whole-person treatment plan to address your needs.

Types of conditions treated

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is used for three main circumstances:

  • Lifesaving. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy can save the lives of people with air or gas embolisms, decompression sickness, or carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • Limb saving. It can be an effective treatment for nonhealing wounds of people at risk of losing a limb or who have had a crush injury.
  • Tissue saving. It can help repair tissue damage caused by burns, help heal muscle and skin grafts, and treat severe infections.

At Mayo Clinic, hyperbaric oxygen therapy is typically delivered in a large, rectangular chamber with up to three times the normal air pressure. While in the chamber, you receive 100 percent oxygen through a lightweight hood. You are assisted by a nurse.

Hyperbaric oxygen treatments usually last about 90 minutes. The chamber is equipped with an entertainment system to make your treatment relaxing. The number of treatments you receive depends on your condition. Some people may require as few as two or three sessions for conditions like carbon monoxide poisoning or up to 40 sessions for nonhealing wounds.

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is offered at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Hyperbaric oxygen consultations are available only by internal referral from Mayo Clinic physicians for management of specific medical conditions. Your first step is to arrange an appointment with an appropriate Mayo Clinic specialist for evaluation of your primary medical condition.

For appointments or more information, call the Central Appointment Office at 507-538-3270 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Central time, Monday through Friday or complete an online appointment request form.

See information on patient services at the three Mayo Clinic locations, including transportation options and lodging.

Mayo Clinic researchers are examining the use of hyperbaric oxygen therapy by:

  • Evaluating the success of dental implants after jaw radiation therapy
  • Analyzing how well it improves outcomes for various conditions
  • Evaluating the effects of hyperbaric oxygen therapy on diabetes glucose metabolism

Mayo's hyperbaric chamber is also used to simulate an altitude of up to 100,000 feet, enabling researchers to study an individual's ability to tolerate extreme elevations encountered in commercial flight, suborbital flight and other extreme environments. Mayo is helping to develop better emergency oxygen delivery systems for commercial aircraft and evaluating the impact of altitude on metabolism.

See a list of publications by Mayo doctors on hyperbaric oxygen therapy on PubMed, a service of the National Library of Medicine.

Nov. 25, 2014