Caisson disease, otherwise known as decompression sickness or the bends, is brought on by sudden reduction of the atmospheric pressure, too rapid for the body to accommodate to the change. The symptoms of the disease are produced by effervescence of gases, principally nitrogen, that has been dissolved in the blood and otherbody fluids. When the atmospheric pressure is suddenly reduced, the dissolved gas comes out of solution as tiny bubbles that occlude capillaries and other small blood vessels.
Up until the mid-nineteenth century, there were many incorrect theories to explain the reason for divers returning to the surface after a deep sea dive suffering fainting, vomiting, deafness, paralysis and even death. It was not until 1878, that Paul Bert in Barometric Pressure showed precisely the cause.
Research into the use of hyperbaric oxygenation began in the 1930s as navies and universities around the world began to study ways to safely decompress deep-sea divers. In 1976, the American Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society was established to study emerging clinical applications of HBO therapy.
Practitioners of alternative medicine claim that HBO can be used to treat disorders in which the oxygen supply to the body is deficient. If due to injury or disease, the heart, lungs, or blood vessels are unable to maintain good circulation, an increase in oxygen it is claimed, can compensate. It is also claimed that the treatment has been found to be beneficial for many conditions including all types of heart disease, circulatory problems, multiple sclerosis, gangrene and stroke. Some practitioners even claim that it has been shown to slow down the aging process and restore natural colour to greying hair.
In science-based medicine, patients are placed in a decompression chamber with a recommended air pressure.
In the case of deep sea divers, this pressure is slowly reduced after the symptoms have been relieved.
In alternative practice, pure oxygen is introduced into the chamber to raise the barometric pressure inside to greater than normal. The increased pressure, which surrounds the individual, forces pure oxygen into the body.
The pressure inside the body is then equalised to the pressure within the chamber. This causes all body tissues to become flooded with more than the usual supply of oxygen.
In addition to decompression sickness, other disorders approved for science-based HBO treatment are carbon monoxide poisoning, thermal bums, acute traumatic ischemias (crush injury), skin grafts and flaps, and air or gas embolism.
There is no evidence however, to support claims by alternative practitioners that HBO treatment is effective in the treatment of patients who have suffered strokes, multiple sclerosis or cardiovascular disease. Further, the treatment only appears to be available at some alternative therapy clinics in Mexico.
Pop star Michael Jackson was treated by HBO therapy after receiving burns during the filming of a Pepsi Cola commercial, but the report that he slept in a HBO chamber to retard the aging process was just a publicity stunt. Experts say that breathing 100% oxygen would cause severe toxicity to the lungs.
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Kastner, Mark & Burroughs, Hugh. 1993. Alternative Healing, Halcyon Publishing, La Mesa, CA.
Kindwall, E.P. 1992. Use of Hyperbaric oxygen therapy in the 1990s. Cleveland Clinical Journal of Medicine. 59(5):517¬28.
McCabe, Ed. 1988. Oxygen Therapies. Energy Publications, Morrisville, New York.
Thompson, B. 1990. Do Oxygen Therapies Work? East West, September 1990. p.70-75, 110-111.