At first glance, the hyperbaric chamber at Sharp Grossmont Hospital looks like a submarine of sorts.
This contraption never enters the water, but it does have a connection to the deep blue sea. The U.S. Navy developed and tested hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) after World War I to treat divers with “the bends,” or decompression sickness. Sharp Grossmont’s team uses Navy “diving tables,” or treatment protocol created and used by the military.
For decades, hyperbaric medicine was mainly associated with treating decompression sickness. Today, the FDA has approved HBOT to treat more than a dozen medical conditions, including damage from radiation, persistent infections, poorly healing wounds or skin grafts, and carbon monoxide poisoning.
How it works
During HBOT, patients breathe 100 percent oxygen inside a pressurized chamber. Under these conditions, the lungs can gather up to three times more oxygen than would be possible breathing oxygen at normal pressure. By comparison, the air we all breathe is about 21 percent oxygen.
Normally, oxygen is transported throughout the body by red blood cells. With HBOT, oxygen is dissolved into all of the body’s fluids and can be carried to areas where circulation is diminished. This enhances the body’s natural healing process by improving its ability to fight infection and promoting the growth of new blood vessels.
“The most common reason we see patients is soft tissue damage from radiation treatment,” explains Koye Durmick, supervisor of hyperbaric medicine and the Wound Healing Center at Sharp Grossmont Hospital. “Doctors refer patients to us if they think hyperbarics will help with the diagnosis, and our certified specialists determine eligibility and course of treatment.”
Sharp Grossmont is accredited to teach an introduction course to hyperbaric medicine, and each member of the hyperbaric team is certified and required to complete months of training. The hospital is one of just three in San Diego to offer this treatment.
What to expect
During treatments, up to six patients sit in the pressurized chamber, accompanied by a staff member at all times. The staff member puts an “oxygen hood” on each patient and connects tubing on the hood to an oxygen delivery system. These hoods stay on for 30 minutes at a time, followed by 5-minute air breaks. Patients are welcome to spend the treatment reading, resting or talking with other patients.
Treatments are five days a week and last two hours; a course of treatment typically ranges from 10 to 60 sessions, or two weeks to three months, but sometimes more. According to Durmick, spending so much time together allows patients and staff to bond, creating a close-knit, almost family-like, environment. Some patients even come back to visit after treatments have ended.
Treatment is completely painless, but HBOT can have side effects just like any other medication. During treatment, it is possible to notice a temporary change in vision. Very rarely a patient may experience oxygen toxicity, symptoms of which include dizziness or nausea. The most serious result of oxygen toxicity is a seizure, although this is very rare and has no lasting effects.
Learn more about hyperbaric medicine at Sharp Grossmont Hospital.