Have you heard of hyperbaric oxygen therapy chambers?

Michael Jackson allegedly slept in one and Lance Armstrong reportedly recovered from cycling competitions using one. Celebrity and athletic use of the chambers has become a focus of the media – sometimes upstaging how vital this valuable therapy is when used for certain medical conditions.

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is a non-invasive method of speeding up the healing process. For this medical treatment, patients are placed in a hyperbaric chamber where 100-percent oxygen is circulated for them to breathe. These conditions quickly deliver high concentrations of oxygen to the bloodstream, which helps the healing process of wounds. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is also effective in fighting infections and improving circulation.

“Currently, there are a number of Medicare and commercial insurance-approved conditions for the use of hyperbaric oxygen therapy,” said Dr. Michael Meadors , medical director at Novant Health Wound Care & Hyperbaric Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “In order for something to be Medicare and insurance approved, it must be based on scientific research that shows effectiveness in treating the medical condition.”

What is a hyperbaric oxygen chamber?

The chamber is an enclosed acrylic tube about 3 feet in diameter and 8 feet long. Patients are placed on a stretcher that slides in and out of the chamber. A TV screen mounted outside the clear chamber keeps patients entertained during lengthy treatments, which can be up to two hours.

During treatment, patients typically experience a change in air pressure that affects the middle ear and ear drums – very similar to what happens on an airplane during takeoff and landing. Otherwise, there is no sensation of increased pressure on the body, Meadors said.

Georgi Thompson of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, who is a breast cancer survivor, spent two hours a day for 40 days inside a hyperbaric oxygen therapy chamber.

“I enjoyed the quiet time during my sessions, watching movies and TV,” she said. “It forced me to relax. I had a wound from cancer treatment that would not heal and this was very effective in improving the healing process.”

What types of conditions can it treat?

Meadors said there are two groups of conditions treated by hyperbaric oxygen therapy. The first group consists of serious conditions seen in acutely ill hospitalized patients. These patients typically have severe illnesses such as rapidly spreading infections, decompression illness from diving, carbon monoxide poisoning, severe thermal burns, brain abscesses, crush injuries or traumatic amputations.

The second group includes more chronic ailments seen in outpatients such as wounds that don’t heal. “In particular, we treat a lot of diabetic foot wounds, and wounds in areas damaged by previous radiation treatment for cancer,” Meadors said.

What are the benefits?

Research shows that after 20 to 30 treatments, patients will have new blood vessels in their damaged tissues along with other improved conditions necessary for wound healing, including collagen production.

Even if the wound is not completely healed, the new blood supply allows the healing process to continue even after therapy ceases. Radiation tissue injury is more severe and may require additional treatments – as many as 60 sessions – but treatments result in new healthy tissue that continues to heal after the hyperbaric oxygen therapy ends, Meadors said.

What isn’t supported by research?

According to reports, Armstrong and other professional athletes have used hyperbaric oxygen in an effort to improve their performance because it can help accelerate recovery time after a strenuous athletic event. However, no scientific data or research shows that hyperbaric oxygen therapy is effective for this use.

In addition, while some centers use hyperbaric oxygen therapy to treat a number of diseases and conditions such as Alzheimer’s, asthma, depression and heart disease, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved its use for those conditions.

Some research underway use hyperbaric oxygen therapy to treat traumatic brain injury, stroke and heart attack. But at the present time, no data show that it is useful for these conditions.