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During hyperbaric oxygen therapy, a patient breathes pure oxygen in a pressurized room. The process is designed to promote healing. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy effectively treats a number of specific conditions, including decompression sickness from deep sea diving. However, it may also be useful in treating cancer patients. This therapy could enhance traditional cancer treatments as well as help patients heal from damaging treatments like radiation therapy, however further research is necessary.
What is Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy?
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy involves breathing pure oxygen in a pressurized setting. The normal air we breathe only contains about 22 percent oxygen. While people generally get enough oxygen from the air, there are health benefits to breathing air with a higher concentration of oxygen. Using pressure, either in a tube or an entire room, allows the lungs to take in more oxygen than they would at normal pressure. The pressure may be as much as three times higher than normal atmospheric pressure during hyperbaric oxygen therapy.
Benefits of Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy may be prescribed for a number of conditions, primarily to promote general healing. Oxygen is normally transported through the bloodstream to all parts of the body. Oxygen promotes healing by stimulating the release of substances like growth factors and stem cells. The body also uses oxygen to fight infections and bacteria. More oxygen traveling through the body increases these processes, which promotes faster healing.
Infections and injuries require more oxygen to heal, making this type of therapy useful for speeding healing in specific situations. For example, someone with diabetes who is not healing properly from a wound may benefit from the therapy. Oxygen therapy can also help support the immune system as it fights serious infections. Hyperbaric oxygen could also prescribed to treat severe anemia, arterial gas embolism, decompression sickness, radiation injuries, brain abscesses, gangrene, carbon monoxide poisoning, sudden vision loss, and burns.
Hyperbaric Oxygen for Cancer Patients
Pressurized oxygen treatment has been used for centuries. As researchers gain a greater understanding of cancers, like mesothelioma, the usefulness and risks of hyperbaric oxygen have been debated. Because oxygen is necessary for cell growth, experts originally thought extra oxygen would promote tumor growth. While research on hyperbaric oxygen and cancer patients is limited, it appears to be safe and does not promote tumor growth.
There is some evidence suggesting pressurized oxygen therapy could inhibit cancer growth. For example, some studies show combining oxygen therapy with chemotherapy can slow cancer. When there is inadequate oxygen there is some tumor resistance to chemotherapy drugs. Supplemental oxygen may decrease this resistance, making chemotherapy more effective. Research results have been mixed. However, there is also evidence that hyperbaric oxygen can make radiation therapy more effective as well. In these situations, hyperbaric oxygen is considered a radiosensitizing or chemosensitizing agent.
Photodynamic therapy, an emerging treatment for mesothelioma and other cancers, also shows great promise. In this therapy, a drug is activated by light and injected into the body where it attacks cancer cells. The procedure avoids many of the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation and is minimally invasive. The procedure is often done under hyperbaric oxygen conditions because the photodynamic drug relies on oxygen to target cancer cells.
Sometimes, cancer patients become injured from treatment. Radiation therapy, for example, can cause serious injury. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is known to help heal these injuries. Surgery can also cause wounds that may lead to infection or can be difficult to heal. Oxygen treatment can improve both of these issues.
What to Expect with Hyperbaric Oxygen Treatment
Your doctor may suggest hyperbaric oxygen therapy as an option for you. If so, you will be treated with either a one-person unit or a hyperbaric room. In either case the therapy is non-invasive and pain free. The therapy is performed on an outpatient basis, so you will not need to stay in the hospital.
In a one one-person unit, you will lie down on a surface that slides into a tube, much like a CT machine. This can be uncomfortable if you feel claustrophobic.
A hyperbaric oxygen room is larger and can accommodate multiple people. These rooms look much like any hospital room. You may either sit or lie down during treatment. A nurse or technician will fit you with a mask or a plastic hood which delivers the oxygen. If you feel uncomfortable in confined spaces, this may be a better option than a one-person unit.
You will feel pressure in our ears during treatment, but it is not severe. It feels much like the pressure changes you experience when flying in an airplane. You can usually experience relief by yawning or swallowing. Treatment usually lasts about two hours.
Risks of Hyperbaric Oxygen
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is considered generally safe. Research has confirmed it does not promote tumor growth or increase the risk of a cancer recurrence. There are few risks, but they are rare. These risks include temporary changes in vision and injuries to the ear from increased air pressure. In extreme situation, there is a risk of a collapsed lung, seizures, or fire. The risk of fire is due to high oxygen levels in the room or unit. Because of this risk you will need to be clean of any petroleum-based products like lotions.
Researchers are continuing to study how useful hyperbaric oxygen can be for cancer patients, including those with mesothelioma. So far, results are promising. In addition to helping patients heal and relieving side effects, this procedure can make chemotherapy and radiation treatments more effective. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is a relatively simple procedure with few risks that is well tolerated by most patients.
Page Medically Reviewed and Edited by Anne Courtney, AOCNP, DNP
Anne Courtney has a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree and is an Advanced Oncology Certified Nurse Practitioner. She has years of oncology experience working with patients with malignant mesothelioma, as well as other types of cancer. Dr. Courtney currently works at University of Texas LIVESTRONG Cancer Institutes.