Hyperbaric oxygen therapy holds real promise. How come you've likely never heard of it before?
You can’t see it, touch it, taste it, or smell it, but if you think you can exist without it, well … don’t hold your breath. Oxygen equals life. And today more and more evidence supports the claim that it not only sustains us, but when we have access to the pressurized and pure form of it, oxygen can profoundly impact our health, enhancing and prolonging our lives.
Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT) — breathing purified oxygen in a pressurized environment — is both yesterday and today’s news. What’s old: The first hyperbaric chamber created in 1662. What’s relatively new: A portable hyperbaric chamber that makes treatment both accessible and affordable. What’s the latest: Practitioners thinking outside the chamber to broaden the scope of HBOT’s reach. Convinced we have not even scratched the surface of HBOT’s healing possibilities, they are determined to prove it.
Chambers of the Past
The first Hyperbaric Chamber — hyper meaning increased, baric meaning pressure — was introduced in 1662 by Hank Henshaw, a British physician and priest who used a system devised of organ bellows and valves to adjust pressure. He called the airtight chamber that looked like a large metal cannister, his domicillium. It functioned solely by adjusting air pressure, as oxygen had not yet been discovered and named. Henshaw discovered that chronic illnesses benefited from reduced pressure while acute diseases responded better to pressure increases.
In the 19th century, European research continued to unlock the benefits of HBOT. As a recommended method of improving blood flow to the brain and eliciting a sense of well-being, it became a fashionable spa treatment. By the late 19th century, Americans joined the party and began to use HBOT to treat neurological disorders. By the 1930s it became — and still is — the go to treatment for decompression sickness in deep sea divers and coal miners. Jump to the 50s and hyperbaric chambers were being used to reduce the side effects of radiation treatment in cancer patients.
The formation of both the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society in 1967 and the International Hyperbarics Association in 1988 further legitimized HBOT. According to Hyperbaric clinic practitioner Bill Schindler, today it is among the top 20 most widely practiced treatments in traditional medicine. Used in hospitals all over the world, it is the gold standard for a specified list of conditions including burns, skin or bone infections that cause tissue death, carbon monoxide poisoning, wound healing especially in diabetics, gangrene, and its original application, decompression sickness or the bends.
But, laments Schindler, that list is outrageously incomplete and an epic waste of an undervalued resource that could change the face of modern medicine. “HBOT is the most misused medical tool in history,” insists Schindler, the owner and director of Hyperbaric PHP (People Helping People), an HBOT clinic in Georgia. “To me it is criminal that we have one of the greatest medical inventions that mankind has ever produced, and because of hospital policy and finances,we are only making it available to a select number of patients for a very select number of conditions.”
It is Schindler’s contention that with hospital HBOT treatments ranging from $600.00 to $2500.00 an hour, the chamber is reserved for conditions that are relatively rare. He feels patients with more common ailments, like strokes, cancer, Alzheimer’s, and autoimmune disorders are being denied access to the chamber’s healing benefits — because the numbers just don’t add up.
From Focusing on Death to Enhancing Life
In 1999 Schindler worked in a cemetery, doing marketing and sales in Los Angeles. While on a vacation in Georgia, a friend introduced him to the hyperbaric portable chamber world. When asked if he wanted to be an innovator and start one of the first private HBOT clinics — after just four days of discussions — he decided to take the leap of faith.
“I went from dealing with the end of life to saving and extending lives,” he smiles. Fifteen years and 17,000 treatments later, he is still overwhelmed at the power of HBOT to change and enhance a client’s quality of life. “How many people get to hear an autistic child’s first words?” he asks, citing the case of an autistic child for whom other treatment modalities have failed. “There is not a week that goes by that I don’t have tears in my eyes.”
When meeting prospective clients, Schindler always asks whether they think HBOT is alternative or traditional medicine. He is constantly amazed when 99 percent say it’s an alternative therapy that has only been around for a couple of decades. “Hyperbaric medicine has ancient origins,” he explains. “Back in 4500 BC, pearl divers understood the impact of pressure on the human body and its relationship to diving. The concept is literally as old as human history.”
The Miracles That Occur Under Pressure
The premise of HBOT, as Schindler explains it, is simple. G+UP=DL — simple … if you are a physicist. What that means to most of us: Gas under pressure dissolves in liquid. HBOT is not about the oxygen itself. You can get oxygen therapy at one of those trendy oxygen bars. But this is about the powerful effect of oxygen under pressure. In the pressurized environment, oxygen fills every cell in the body. When those cells are full, oxygen overflows into the liquid of the body; the tissues, organs, blood, glands, and bones. The entire body soaks up oxygen and is affected on a cellular level. The more oxygen flowing into the mitochondria or engine of a cell, the more it can produce energy to increase stamina and bolster the immune system, stimulating the body to heal itself.
The increase in blood flow also decreases inflammation. “One hour in the chamber is equal to 40 Motrin minus the side effects,” says Schindler. “The effect is also cleansing. Oxygen in, toxins out.”
The invention of the portable chamber has dramatically changed the HBOT conversation. Treatment is now available by prescription in the small clinic environment, or in the privacy of one’s own home. Wider access means a broader spectrum of clients can reap its benefits. Schindler’s client base is diverse and extensive, and besides autistic children and their families, includes stroke victims, cancer patients, Alzheimer’s sufferers, and baby boomers battling Father Time.
“Plastic surgeons recommend HBOT both pre and post surgically for speedier healing,” he says. His roster also includes pro athletes like golfers Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth, and NFL Hall of Famer, Brett Favre, as well as a long list of celebs like actor Donny Wahlberg, Jenny McCarthy, and Usher, who has a chamber at home and one for the road.
A Walk-Through The HBOT Process
So, what are we really talking about here in terms of the actual therapy? According to Schindler, “The whole experience is like zipping into a sleeping bag, as easy for the 2-week-old as the 104 year old.” And he has treated both. With several different sizes, the chamber can accommodate virtually any body type and size. In most cases, the larger chamber, 7 and ½ feet long and 3 feet wide can be shared by two people. The ambient air goes through a hepa filter to create a sterile environment comparable to a surgical suite. There is also an oxygen concentrator that separates oxygen from nitrogen. A tube runs from the concentrator into the chamber. Clients wear a mask and breathe in the concentrated oxygen, which is between 91 percent and 95 percent pure oxygen, flowing at 10 liters per minute. The chamber also works without the concentrator, but the additional oxygen maximizes the effects of the treatment.
The pressure is set to duplicate 11 feet below sea level. With pressure change similar to an airplane, clients have to clear their ears. Other than that, Schindler invites patients to crawl in and read a book, or lie back, relax, and as Lauryn Hill sings, “Just Breathe.”
Even the most claustrophobic among us can handle it, he assures. “I’ve definitely had clients who say ‘No way. I’ll never get in there!’ but once they get in they are fine. We keep the light on and make sure they know they can always get out by themselves.”
Side effects? According to Schindler there are none. The worst that can happen, he says, is nothing, so there is nothing to lose and everything to gain. He says the treatment is safe for the majority of people. The exceptions are anyone with a collapsed lung, COPD (Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), or any ear issues. Also, there are some experts who say the treatment may temporarily affect eyesight, so it is not recommended to change your eyeglass prescription within eight weeks of treatment.
A World Of Potential
It would be an understatement to say that not all mainstream professionals are as enthusiastic — or certain — about the benefits of HBOT outside the confines of standard treatments. But Schindler is convinced that double Nobel Prize winner Ottum Warburg was right when he posited in the 1930s that the root cause cancer is oxygen deficiency, which creates an acidic state in the human body. Warburg discovered that cancer cells are anaerobic and cannot survive in the presence of high levels of oxygen, as found in an alkaline state. “Instead of killing people with chemotherapy, we should be starving cancer cells with HBOT,” says Schindler. “We are treating cancer patients every day and seeing amazing results.”
Schindler is optimistic that eventually traditional medicine will acknowledge the virtues of HBOT for a wider range of diseases and conditions. “As more and more doctors are becoming educated, I think we are changing hearts and minds. We have a powerful tool in our possession and now we just need to spread the message so more people can take advantage of it.”
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