For years, the vision of people in hyperbaric oxygen chambers instilled images of eccentric Hollywood actresses and sports stars sleeping blindfolded as they experimented with a different form of healing power.
But Dr. Ravindra Patel, who practices hyperbaric and undersea medicine and general and vascular surgery at University Community Hospital – Carrollwood, said the past decade may have been the golden era for hyperbaric medicine because scientific evidence verified its benefits.
“We knew it was out there, but it had a negative connotation because it was used for things people didn’t really understand,” Patel said. “But once there was scientific data about oxygen, that’s when the medical community bought in. When it works, and there’s proof, that’s when corporate can’t say no.”
Hyperbaric medicine has been around for years, but until the early 2000's, the scientific data Patel spoke of wasn’t available. UCH-Carrollwood started a hyperbaric wound clinic in 2002.
“We saw that we had done about 50 [leg] amputations the year before,” Patel said. “That’s a lot of lives that changed – patients, caregivers, families, costs, and a burden to the system itself. It’s devastating.
“You’re always looking for ways to improve the care of patients. So the hospital was kind enough to help us investigate and we started the first wound center in the UCH system.”
How it works
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is the use of 100 percent oxygen while the patient is in a pressurized chamber. The combination of pressure and oxygen increases the number of oxygen molecules that are dissolved in the blood plasma (the liquid part of your blood) which is then delivered to your tissues (approximately 10 to 15 times the usual amount).
This stimulates the process of regenerating new healthy tissue. The benefits include enhancement of white blood cells, enhancement of antibiotic activity and reduced swelling.
“Every wound will have at its center a lack of oxygen,” Patel said. “Giving them oxygen through the hyperbaric oxygen therapy helps overcome that problem for that period of time so that the body thinks it has those resources and the wound heals up."
But, Patel said, the treatment isn't a cure-all.
“That doesn’t mean the diabetes goes away, the radiation injuries go away," Patel said. "They’re there; we just temporarily tricked the body system to believe things are normal.
"A wound is a door, a window to your body, and that’s when infections get in. And our goal is to see it, fix it and close the chapter.”
Patel said hyperbaric oxygen treatment usually is suggested after approximately four weeks when conventional treatment isn’t helping heal a wound.
John Crouse is nearing the end of 40 treatments of hyperbaric therapy for a foot injury caused by the removal of a cyst from his arch. He swears by the treatment.
“There’s no discomfort,” said Crouse, 60. “It’s like going up in an airplane, a little bit of pressure in your ears, and that’s it. I noticed after the first two or three treatments it was getting better, and now it’s healing up nicely.”
In addition to UCH-Carrollwood, the Adventist Health System has wound units in the Bay area in Brandon, on Bruce B. Downs near Tampa Palms and in Tarpon Springs.
Patel said it wasn’t an easy sell to hospital administrators, having to prove the economic viability of the chambers.
“It was a pie in the sky,” Patel said. “Here is this guy [Patel] trying to tell you this is what you can do to save limbs and lives, and there is always the questions of, ‘Will it cost us money? Will we break even, or will we make some money?' We had to demonstrate that by showing a need.”
Patel said 80 percent of his patients are diabetics, but studies in autism, traumatic brain injury and strokes are ongoing to show the positive effects of hyperbaric medicine.
“Once there is scientific evidence - not anecdotal examples, but pure prospective random studies saying, 'Yes, it works,' - I think they will approve it,” Patel said.