By: Diana Barnes-Brown for Wounds1
A new technique for wound care, known as hyperbaric wound therapy, is giving hope to those who have struggled with chronic wounds from diabetes, circulatory disorders, and certain types of wounds or injuries, as well as a variety of other causes.
The body’s ability to regenerate damaged skin is remarkable, but in some cases this natural ability is compromised by other factors. Circulatory disorders such as vascular malformations (circulatory strictures that do not grow properly) can cause skin ulcers that do not heal. Diabetics can suffer from nerve damage in their feet and legs, allows small wounds or irritations grow without notice. People with compromised immune function or healing ability, such as those who have autoimmune disorders, those exposed to radiation therapy, and the very old or young may be slow to recover from wounds because their bodies are not able to heal at the normal rate.
Also, certain kinds of wounds are particularly hard for the body to repair on its own, due to disturbances of blood flow, likelihood of infection, or the area of the body in which they occur. Wounds such as bites, pressure ulcers, traumatic injuries such as torn skin or crushing injuries are especially vulnerable to compromised healing, because of either the increased ability of bacteria to invade and grow in such wounds or the inability of the body to provide the blood flow necessary for healing.
Hyperbaric wound care is unique in that it uses oxygen therapy to heal wounds from the inside out, allowing patients a better chance at recovery by thwarting infection, and, in turn, potentially preventing the need to amputate limbs or remove the affected tissue.
Oxygen might seem like a mundane choice for a revolutionary new therapy, since it occurs all around us in the air we breathe. But oxygen only makes up about 20 percent of normal air (and much less in areas affected by pollution; anything lower than 7 percent is considered unable to sustain human life). In comparison, hyperbaric therapy is conducted by having patients breathe 100-percent oxygen, filling their bodies with the essential gas and thereby speeding circulation and flooding slow-to-heal areas with blood, in effect flushing away the bacteria and contaminates that prevent tissue from healing while providing oxygen-starved cells with some much-needed nourishment.
The treatment uses a hyperbaric chamber, which is filled with 100-percent oxygen and pressurized. Treatment lasts for up to two hours and may be continued for a period of several weeks. Patients are enclosed in a clear chamber, and can see, and be seen by, others, as well as watch movies or television during their therapy.
Hyperbaric chambers have been used for years to treat SCUBA divers who get “the bends” (dangerous gas bubbles in the blood stream) from surfacing too quickly from deep dives, and a few years back, physicians and researchers began to experiment to see if they might have other applications.
Now, clinics and resources have popped up all over the United States. Patients can seek treatment and information at such facilities Duke University’s Center for Hyperbaric Medicine & Environmental Physiology in Durham NC, the UCLA Gonda Center for Wound Healing and Hyperbaric Medicine, and the Hyperbaric Wound Care and Lymphedema center at North Austin Medical Center, among others. The National Board of Diving and Hyperbaric Medical Technology based in Harvey, Louisiana is a non-profit organization that provides training for care-providers in the field.
Many doctors and health-care givers are optimistic about hyperbaric wound care, because they feel it will help patients’ bodies get the boost they need to emerge victorious in the battle with tough wounds.