Hyperbaric oxygen therapy involves breathing pure oxygen in a pressurized room. 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 room, the air pressure is raised up to three times higher than normal air pressure. Under these conditions, your lungs can gather up to three times more oxygen than would be possible breathing pure oxygen at normal air pressure.

Your blood carries this oxygen throughout your body, stimulating 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 a wide assortment of medical conditions, and different medical institutions use this treatment in a variety of ways. Your doctor may suggest hyperbaric oxygen therapy if you have one of the following conditions:

  • Bubbles of air in your blood vessels (arterial gas embolism)
  • Decompression sickness
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning
  • A wound that won't heal
  • A crushing injury
  • Gangrene
  • Skin or bone infection that causes tissue death
  • Radiation injuries
  • Burns
  • Skin grafts or skin flaps at risk of tissue death
  • Severe anemia

Although more research regarding hyperbaric oxygen therapy is under way, currently there's insufficient scientific evidence to support claims that hyperbaric oxygen therapy can effectively treat the following conditions:

  • Allergies
  • Arthritis
  • Autism
  • Cancer
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Cirrhosis
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Gastrointestinal ulcers
  • Stroke

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is generally a safe procedure, and complications are rare. But, as with any medical procedure, it does carry some risk.

Potential complications include:

  • Temporary nearsightedness (myopia) caused by increased blood oxygen levels
  • Middle ear and inner ear injuries, including leaking fluid and eardrum rupture, due to increased air pressure
  • Organ damage caused by air pressure changes (barotrauma)
  • Seizures as a result of too much oxygen (oxygen toxicity) in your central nervous system

Pure oxygen can cause fire if there is a source of ignition, such as a spark or flame, and adequate fuel. Because of this, you can't take any items into the hyperbaric oxygen therapy room that could ignite a fire, such as lighters or battery powered devices. In addition, to limit sources of excess fuel, you may need to remove hair and wound-care products that are petroleum-based and potentially flammable. Ask a member of your health care team for specific instructions prior to your first hyperbaric oxygen therapy session.

During hyperbaric oxygen therapy

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy typically is performed as an outpatient procedure and does not require hospitalization. If you're already hospitalized and require hyperbaric oxygen therapy, you'll remain in the hospital during a hyperbaric oxygen therapy session. Alternately, you may be transported to and from the hospital to a hyperbaric oxygen therapy session if the procedure is performed at an outside facility.

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

  • A unit designed for one person. In an individual (monoplace) unit, you lie down on a padded table that slides into a clear plastic tube about 7 feet long.
  • A room designed to accommodate several people. In a multiperson hyperbaric oxygen room — which usually looks like a hospital waiting room inside — you may sit or lie down. A lightweight, clear hood may be placed over your head to deliver the oxygen to you, or you may wear a mask over your face to receive the oxygen.

During hyperbaric oxygen therapy, the air pressure in the room is approximately 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 — that can be relieved by yawning.

A therapy session may last from one to two hours. Members of your health care team monitor you and the therapy unit throughout your treatment.

After hyperbaric oxygen therapy

You may feel lightheaded following your treatment. Typically, this feeling goes away within a few minutes and doesn't limit normal activities.

To be effective, hyperbaric oxygen therapy requires more than one session. The number of hyperbaric oxygen therapy sessions you require depends on your medical condition. Some conditions, such as carbon monoxide poisoning, can be treated in as few as three visits. Others, such as nonhealing wounds, may require 25 to 30 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 in conjunction with additional therapies and medications 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 U.S. and can accommodate the treatment of dozens of people at a time.
  • Teamwork. Hyperbaric medicine specialists work with doctors in vascular medicine, radiology, reconstructive surgery and other areas to develop appropriate treatments for a growing number of medical conditions.
  • Research. Mayo doctors and researchers continue to investigate new applications of and treatment guidelines for hyperbaric oxygen therapy.

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

At Mayo Clinic, hyperbaric oxygen therapy is delivered in a 6,000-square-foot, 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. The chamber is equipped with natural lighting and an entertainment system to make your treatment relaxing.

Hyperbaric oxygen treatments usually last about 90 minutes. 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.

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 radiation therapy or other types of burns; improve and speed the healing of skin grafts or flaps; and treat infections such as gangrene that spread and destroy surrounding tissues.

Hyperbaric medicine is part of Mayo’s Aerospace Medicine program, which has a long history of research on low oxygen conditions in flight.

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is offered at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Hyperbaric oxygen consultations are available only by internal referral from Mayo Clinic physicians for management of specific medical conditions. Patients seeking referral should arrange an appointment with an appropriate Mayo Clinic specialist for evaluation of their 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.

Research continues to demonstrate the benefits of hyperbaric oxygen therapy and is leading to medical advances, improvements in recovery and important new applications. Mayo Clinic has a large hyperbaric medicine staff to pursue new research opportunities and address increasing interest in its use.

Researchers are currently examining the use of hyperbaric oxygen therapy for cancer and wound healing, such as:

  • Analysis of whether hyperbaric oxygen can enhance the effectiveness of radiation therapy to treat large tumors otherwise resistant to radiation and chemotherapy alone
  • Evaluation of the effects of hyperbaric oxygen on stem cell response in people who have diabetes or radiation injuries

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 assisting in the development of new-generation emergency oxygen delivery systems for commercial aircraft.

Publications

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

Oct. 27, 2011